Congress Isn’t Perfect but the Politicians Aren’t Always to Blame

by Nathan L. Gonzales August 16, 2018 · 9:15 AM EDT

After 30 years of covering Congress, David Hawkings has a good idea of how Capitol Hill works — or more important, how it doesn’t — and he laid out five key reasons why Congress is broken.

But whether it’s money, maps, media, mingling or masochism, there are no easy solutions. Nor are they entirely the responsibility of the politicians to address.

Map mess
The redistricting process, including how congressional districts are drawn and the lack of competitive seats, gets a lot of blame for the dysfunction in Congress.

It’s absolutely true that gerrymandering is a factor in our electoral process. But there’s no guarantee that redistricting reform will achieve the desired goals.

For example, California has a citizen redistricting commission and a top-two primary system, both designed to push elected officials to the moderate middle. Yet there’s scant evidence that members of the Golden State’s congressional delegation are any more moderate than before those measures. And it’s not clear whether the commission created more competitive districts, or if Donald Trump’s polarizing presidency gets the credit for more seats being in play than past cycles.

In the case of Arizona, an independent redistricting commission drew the lines after the 2010 census, yet four of its five GOP members align with the House Freedom Caucus, two of its four Democrats are part of the House Progressive Caucus, and just a third of all seats are considered competitive this cycle.

One of the reasons why a disproportionate majority of House members and senators represent territory that is almost certain to elect someone from their own political party, as Hawkings noted, is because a disproportionate majority of Americans live in politically homogeneous communities.

For example, Trump carried 76 percent of the counties with a Cracker Barrel restaurant (a staple of smaller-town communities) compared to just 22 percent of counties that have a Whole Foods, according to my friend Dave Wasserman of The Cook Political Report. One way to diversify congressional districts is for people to choose to live near people that don’t look, act and vote like they do.

More competitive House districts would theoretically be better for the political handicapping business, so I’m not necessarily against these measures. But it would create more vulnerable incumbents. And more electoral accountability could also mean more members spending more time on their re-elections, including more time raising money.

More money, more problems
Another problem Hawkings pointed to was the excessive time members spend raising money — time spent away from legislating and cultivating relationships with their colleagues across the aisle. But part of the problem is also what candidates think they need to say to raise the money.

Candidates often resort to the most partisan and apocalyptic language to solicit donations. You could blame candidates or the consultants who draft the emails and spam your inbox. But politicians resort to that rhetoric because it works. Potential donors shouldn’t reward behavior they don’t want to see repeated.

There’s also the complaint of too much money, particularly outside money, in campaigns. But in my experience, “dark money” is usually a reference to outside groups that you don’t align with while outside money you do like comes from allies, friends and patriots.

One way to decrease some of the undisclosed outside money would be to lift contribution limits to candidates and party committees. That might be unthinkable to some folks, but those donations would need to be reported and disclosed to the Federal Election Commission and would be available for the public to digest.

The guilt-by-donation attack also has a corrosive effect on people’s views of Congress. Whether it’s money from Nancy Pelosi or the National Rifle Association, campaigns love to portray politicians as puppets for accepting those donations. But if candidates can raise millions (or tens of millions) of dollars, it would be difficult for many to bow to the altar of thousands of people or companies giving them thousands of dollars.

When it comes to money in politics, I’m not sure everyone would be happy in every situation. If the country was to adopt a public campaign finance system, people would complain about their hard-earned taxes going to help members fund their re-elections, including paying for negative ads.

Missing mingling
“It’s tough to create and establish a functional and sometimes collaborative legislature when half the members have no personal interaction with the other half,” Hawkings wrote. He noted that fewer and fewer members find homes in the Washington area and move their spouses and children closer to their weekday work. And he’s absolutely right.

When it comes to lawmakers spending more time in Washington, they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

If members choose to buy a home or condo in Washington, they’ll be attacked for it in their campaigns. Just ask Indiana GOP Rep. Luke Messer or Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester about this year or former Democratic Sens. Tom Daschle of South Dakota or Mary Landrieu of Louisiana about past cycles.

Constituents can be schizophrenic too. If members spend more time in Washington to “get things done,” they will be criticized for being out of touch with their districts. If they spend too much time back home, they’ll be criticized for not getting enough done in Washington.

The media is also partially blame for Congress’ “do nothing” label. News outlets too often refer to congressional recess as vacation.

And there’s often a bias toward congressional action (tallying up the number of bills passed as a gauge of productivity) when inaction can be viewed as an asset (and even an ideological goal) by conservatives.

It’s going to be hard for Congress to improve its public standing when every election cycle, a majority of the campaign rhetoric is about the lousy job members of Congress are doing. That includes rhetoric from challengers to incumbents in the majority as well as from primary challengers. It’s simply in the best interest of those not in office to talk down the institution they want to be hired for.

I’m not going to defend Congress as a perfect institution. But it’s not always the politicians who are to blame, and the perceived solutions are more complicated than people either realize or want to admit.