Confessions of a congressman
(9 secrets from the inside)
by A Member of Congress on July 12, 2015
I am a member of Congress. I'm not going to tell you from where, or from which party. But I serve, and I am honored to serve. I serve with good people (and some less good ones), and we try to do our best.
It's a frustrating, even disillusioning job. The public pretty much hates us. Congress polls lower than Richard Nixon during Watergate, traffic jams, or the Canadian alt-rock band Nickelback. So the public knows something is wrong. But they often don't know exactly what is wrong. And sometimes, the things they think will fix Congress — like making us come home every weekend — actually break it further.
So here are some things I wish the voters knew about the people elected to represent them.
1) Congress is not out of touch with folks back home
Congress is only a part-time job in Washington, DC. An hour after the last vote, almost everyone is on the airplane home. Congress votes fewer than 100 days a year, spending the rest of the time back home where we pander to their constituents' short-term interests, not the long-term good of the nation. Anyone who is closer to your district than you are will replace you. Incumbents stick to their districts like Velcro.
2) Congress listens best to money
I spent 7 years working in retail. I’ll never complain about a long Starbucks line again.
I used to lead tours at a plantation. You won’t believe the questions I got about slavery.
It is more lucrative to pander to big donors than to regular citizens. Campaigns are so expensive that the average member needs a million-dollar war chest every two years and spends 50 percent to 75 percent of their term in office raising money. Think about that. You're paying us to do a job, and we're spending that time you're paying us asking rich people and corporations to give us money so we can run ads convincing you to keep paying us to do this job. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled that money is speech and corporations are people, the mega-rich have been handed free loudspeakers. Their voices, even out-of-state voices, are drowning out the desperate whispers of ordinary Americans.
3) Almost everyone in Congress loves gerrymandering
Without crooked districts, most members of Congress probably would not have been elected. According to the Cook Political Report, only about 90 of the 435 seats in Congress are "swing" seats that can be won by either political party. In other words, 345 seats are safe Republican or Democratic seats. Both parties like it that way. So that's what elections are like today: rather than the voters choosing us, we choose the voters. The only threat a lot of us incumbents face is in the primaries, where someone even more extreme than we are can turn out the vote among an even smaller, more self-selected group of partisans.
4) You have no secret ballot anymore
The only way political parties can successfully gerrymander is by knowing how you vote. Both parties have destroyed your privacy at the polling booth. Thanks to election rolls, we don't know exactly whom you voted for, but we get pretty damn close. We know exactly which primaries and general elections you have voted in, and since there are so few realistic candidates in most elections, down or up ballot, we might as well know exactly who you voted for. Marry that data with magazine subscriptions, the kind of car you drive, and all sorts of other easily available consumer information that we've figured out how to use to map your political preferences, and we can gerrymander and target subdivisions, houses — even double beds. Republicans want the male vote; Democrats the female vote.
5) We don't have a Congress but a parliament
Over the last several decades, party loyalty has increased to near-unanimity. If a member of Congress doesn't vote with his or her party 99 percent of the time, he's considered unreliable and excluded from party decision-making. Gone are the days when you were expected to vote your conscience and your district, the true job of a congressperson. Parliaments only work because they have a prime minister who can get things done. We have a parliament without any ability to take executive action. We should not be surprised we are gridlocked.
6) Congressional committees are a waste of time
With parliamentary voting, control is centralized in each party's leadership. Almost every major decision is made by the Speaker or Minority Leader, not by committees. They feel it is vital to party success to have a national "message" that is usually poll-driven, not substantive. So why develop any expertise as a committee member if your decisions will only be overridden by party leadership? Why try to get on a good committee if you have already ceded authority to your unelected, unaccountable party leaders? The result is members routinely don't show up at committee hearings, or if they do show up, it's only to ask a few questions and leave. A lot of members fight for committees that will help them raise money or get a sweet lobbying job later (more on that in a minute). The result is that the engine for informed lawmaking is broken.
7) Congress is a stepping-stone to lobbying
Congress is no longer a destination but a journey. Committee assignments are mainly valuable as part of the interview process for a far more lucrative job as a K Street lobbyist. You are considered naïve if you are not currying favor with wealthy corporations under your jurisdiction. It's become routine to see members of Congress drop their seat in Congress like a hot rock when a particularly lush vacancy opens up. The revolving door is spinning every day. Special interests deplete Congress of its best talent.
8)The best people don't run for Congress
Smart people figured this out years ago and decided to pursue careers other than running for Congress. The thought of living in a fishbowl with 30-second attack ads has made Congress repulsive to spouses and families. The idea of spending half your life begging rich people you don't know for money turns off all reasonable, self-respecting people. That, plus lower pay than a first-year graduate of a top law school, means that Congress, like most federal agencies, is not attracting the best and the brightest in America.
9) Congress is still necessary to save America, and cynics aren't helping
Discouragement is for wimps. We aren't going to change the Constitution, so we need to make the system we have work. We are still, despite our shortcomings, the most successful experiment in self-government in history. Our greatest strength is our ability to bounce back from mistakes like we are making today. Get over your nostalgia: Congress has never been more than a sausage factory. The point here isn't to make us something we're not. The point is to get us to make sausage again. But for that to happen, the people have to rise up and demand better.
Corporations now spend more lobbying Congress than taxpayers spend funding Congress
Updated by Ezra Klein@ezraklein Jul 15, 2015
Well, this isn't good:
Corporations now spend about $2.6 billion a year on reported lobbying expenditures – more than the $2 billion we spend to fund the House ($1.16 billion) and Senate ($820 million).
Those numbers come from political scientist Lee Drutman, author of the book The Business of America Is Lobbying, who notes, over email, that they've fallen slightly out of date. In 2014 the House's operating budget was $1.18 billion, and the Senate's operating budget was $860 million. That pays for, among other things, all congressional staff. Add in the funds for the Congressional Budget Office and the Congressional Research Service — the two most important agencies meant to inform members of Congress about the issues corporate America is lobbying them on — and you've added another $150 million to the tab.
Which is to say, Drutman's point stands: businesses* are spending more money lobbying the House and Senate than taxpayers are spending running the House and Senate and informing its members. And that should scare you, for two reasons.
Problem #1: how Congress outsources its thinking to lobbyists
Lobbying, to most people, looks like bribery. And there's certainly an element of bribery — the lobbyist who refuses to contribute to the reelection campaign isn't going to get a meeting, much less an ally. But after the bribery comes the lobbyist's real job: persuasion.
No legislator wants to feel bought. What they want to feel is convinced. It's the lobbyist's job to give them that feeling —to make them feel like they're casting the right vote, not just the vote they were paid to cast.
Lobbying thrives on ignorance and apathy. No member of Congress can be expert on all the issues that cross his or her desk. But members of Congress can be expert, or at least think they're expert, on some issues. Those are the issues where lobbying is hardest — and least effective. Lobbyists can't make Republicans vote for Obamacare or Democrats vote for Paul Ryan's budget. Their sorcery rarely works on issues ruled by ideology.
But their spells are powerful when cast upon obscure subparagraphs, technical amendments, and legislation that will never make headlines. It's in that vast gap between how many issues members of Congress — and their staffs — can know and care about, and how many issues they're being asked to vote on, where lobbying is most powerful. And there is so, so much money in that gap.
The way it will work is that an obscure tax break that neither the congressman nor his staff has ever heard of will be set to expire. Neither the congressman nor his staff will have any particular opinion as to whether the tax break should be renewed. But the congressman will get a request for a meeting from a lobbyist who has been a big supporter of his campaigns. It'll only take 20 minutes, the lobbyist promises — no big deal.
And you know what? The lobbyist will make a good case for keeping that tax break. The lobbyist, after all, was hired because she is good at making cases. She will walk in prepared, knowledgeable, charismatic. She'll know how the tax provision will affect businesses in that member's district — maybe she'll even have brought some business owners from the congressman's district along. Hell, she might even know the congressman already, or have worked for him in the past (more on that in a minute). Corporate America is buying a lot of talent with that $2.4 billion.
But even if the lobbyist makes a bad case, the congressman may never realize it. Congress has a very limited amount of money with which to inform itself. Corporate America has vastly more money with which to inform Congress. It's easy to make an argument sound good when nobody is arguing the other side.
That's what those numbers show: the forces of corporate lobbying have much more money to "inform" Congress than Congress has money to inform itself.
This wasn't always true, Drutman writes. The corporate lobbying budget only began regularly exceeding Congress's operating budget in the early 2000s. But the gap has been widening since then, and that's good news for lobbyists, who are at their best when they're making arguments that no one is even bothering to check, much less rebut.
Problem #2: money makes the door revolve
The Center for Responsive Politics found that more than half of members of Congress who left the body after 2010 are now lobbying, or have lobbying-related jobs.
The fact that corporations spend more lobbying Congress than Congress spends on itself is a disaster — it means there's a massive pay gap between the people serving in Congress and the people lobbying Congress, and everyone working in Congress knows it. What's worse, they know how to fix it. As one frustrated congressman wrote:
Congress is no longer a destination but a journey. Committee assignments are mainly valuable as part of the interview process for a far more lucrative job as a K Street lobbyist. You are considered naïve if you are not currying favor with wealthy corporations under your jurisdiction. It's become routine to see members of Congress drop their seat in Congress like a hot rock when a particularly lush vacancy opens up.
That pay gap opens space for corruption to ooze through the system. Lobbyists try to get members of Congress, and their staffs, thinking about a high-paying lobbying job as early as they possibly can — sometimes years before they actually leave the Capitol. What they want is for members of Congress and their staffs to treat every day on the Hill as a job interview for the lobbying gig they want when they leave the Hill. As disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff wrote in his memoir:
I would say a few magic words: "When you are done working for the Congressman, you should come work for me at my firm."
With that, assuming the staffer had any interest in leaving Capitol Hill for K Street—and almost 90 percent of them do, I would own him and, consequently, that entire office. No rules had been broken, at least not yet. No one even knew what was happening, but suddenly, every move that staffer made, he made with his future at my firm in mind. His paycheck may have been signed by the Congress, but he was already working for me, influencing his office for my clients’ best interests. It was a perfect—and perfectly corrupt—arrangement.
This matters because relationships matter. Remember, lobbying is about persuasion. And no one is more persuasive than your friend, or your former colleague. Lobbying firms know that sending fresh-faced kids six months out of Princeton to lecture a member of Congress about agricultural subsidies probably isn't going to end well. What they want to do is send the staffer that member of Congress spent six years working with — a person that member of Congress actually respects, actually listens to, actually likes — to talk to him about agricultural subsidies.
That's why it's so valuable for lobbying firms to hire former members of Congress and ex-congressional staffers. It's not just that those relationships help the lobbying firms get in the door; it's that those relationships help the lobbying firms be persuasive once they're in the room.
The solution nobody likes: spend more money on Congress
It's easy to read all this and want to regulate the problem out of existence. Rep. Rob Blum, a Republican from Iowa, is pushing a bill banning members of Congress from lobbying their ex-colleagues for life.
But as Andrew Prokop argues, that kind of legislation probably won't work. In addition to potentially being unconstitutional, it'll just replace lobbying with shadow lobbying. So long as there's a huge gap between what Congress knows and what it needs to know, and between what Congress pays and what lobbying pays, this space between will fill with corruption.
Which means the real solution is to reduce the size of those gaps. It means, in other words, that we need to pay members of Congress and their staff more, and give Congress more money to build up its own informational resources. As Drutman writes, we need to "invest more in government by giving government, especially Congress, the resources to hire and retain the most experienced and expert staff."
Since no one likes Congress, no one likes the idea of giving Congress more money. But spending about $2 billion annually on an organization that collectively controls around $4 trillion in annual spending is a recipe for disaster. The less of our money we spend on Congress, the more of our money lobbyists are going to convince Congress to spend on their clients.
*Similar points apply to lobbying by unions and advocacy organizations. But the magnitude of their spending is simply much lower. "For every dollar spent on lobbying by labor unions and public interest groups, large corporations and their associations now spend $34," writes Drutman. "Of the 100 organizations that spend the most on lobbying, 95 consistently represent business."