Why Congress Can't Deliberate

December 4, 2012 |
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The new Congress next year will likely inherit high-stakes standoffs over many complicated issues, from financial credibility to immigration. Our elected leaders must be able to make difficult trade-offs and craft policies that reflect the best expert knowledge.

In its current dysfunctional state, however, Congress cannot have nuanced deliberations or make knowledgeable judgments. One big reason is that it no longer has the capacity to produce unbiased public-interest information.

In the mid-1990s the mechanisms that produced the information and statistics that Congress had relied on to produce bills were virtually disassembled. Under House Speaker Newt Gingrich, many support panels that supplied information and analysis to Congress members were disbanded or curtailed.

As many government agencies have done, Congress outsourced the job to private contractors – in this case, to independent think tanks and policy organizations, which are often ideologically driven. So it is now all too common that the two parties have not only their own opinions but their own facts.

The good news is that some of this congressional dysfunction can be fixed. Congress can use technology to rebuild its capacity to manage information on the public’s behalf.

First, it’s critical to understand how our national legislature got to this defective state. Congress defunded much of its internal system for generating objective expert knowledge in 1995.

I came to work on Capitol Hill two years later to help fill the gaps left by the elimination of the Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus—a bipartisan and bicameral resource that had supplied members with analysis and research  about global security threats. I was hired by Representative Elizabeth Furse (D-Ore.) as a national security adviser and worked with dozens of other members as well.

Congress had jettisoned its bipartisan Office of Technology Assessment at the same time. The OTA had been responsible for providing the Senate and House with context and technical analysis for policymaking. In-house scientists and other experts brought the basic peer review process to Capitol Hill, consulting with a nationwide networks of academics. It was regarded as one of the world’s premier scientific advisory bodies ‑ and its functions have never been replaced.

Groups that survived the ax were still subject to significant staff cuts, which have limited their effectiveness. Like an institutional immune system, the individuals in these positions defend Congress against the intentional misinformation and purchased access so prevalent in our body politic.

In contrast to most outside information suppliers, those dedicated to the institution point out what Congress knows ‑ but also what Congress doesn’t know. They manage risk on behalf of the public. It is obvious when this deliberation is missing — and one result is this current dysfunction.

Consider Internet regulations. Last year’s Stop Online Piracy Act largely reflected Hollywood’s position as presented by the movie industry’s influential lobbies. But it was ultimately derailed after Internet providers and users staged an online protest and the Internet corporations hired their own powerful lobbyists.

As with any organization, the ability to deliberate depends on skilled human resources. Yet members of Congress lack this support, even as they confront a tsunami of data. Congressional offices are flooded with phone calls, meetings, emails, faxes and letters ‑ roughly 800 percent more incoming communication than 10 years ago. Yet congressional staffs, responsible for analyzing, prioritizing and ultimately referring information to members, are at 87 percent of 1979 levels, according to the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation.

Committee staffs – where most expertise resides — took the greatest hit during the 1990s cutbacks. The ability of staff to sort sentiment from substance, or to judge the integrity of incoming information, has been seriously compromised.

Even when expert knowledge is available, we have no way to ensure that elected leaders will use it. Instead, many elected officials now often turn to lobbyists, who spent $3.5 billion to influence legislators in 2010.

The shift in 1995 that outsourced policy expertise to private interests has created a system where purchased relationships reap far more benefits than those based on shared civic values.

So how can the public interest compete?

A vital first step: Non-governmental sources of reliable expertise – those without a financial conflict of interest – must step in to fill the information gap. For example, scientists could provide real-time fact-checking support to staff during congressional hearings via webcast, to ensure that erroneous testimony is immediately identified and corrected.

One academic I know recently said he had been called an “evidence whore,” since he was relying on scientific facts. He felt that the modern scientific method as a way to identify problems, gather data and test solutions has been marginalized.

One step forward is to make expert knowledge a bigger part of the policy process. Professors, academic experts or graduate students could be lined up for regular “g-chat” office hours – a sort of 1-800 EXPERT service to help prepare members before hearings. New transparency rules make substantive contributions more possible than ever before.

Most members of Congress say constituent input is the most important factor in their policy decisions. This can also be true for policy expertise. Trusted, familiar relationships are powerful currency. Local experts have the capital to effectively push open the captured deliberative space on Capitol Hill. These individuals could use their experience and peer-reviewed data to broaden policy alternatives available to members.

Technical experts in particular have a vital role to play. Computing today enables lightning-fast forecasting of alternative outcomes that make future trade-offs over finite public resources such as tax dollars, water, Broadband spectrum or even use of military force more obvious. (Remember when Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki testified in 2003 that it would take 300,000 troops to occupy Iraq?)

Congress must also rebuild its non-partisan internal institutions for sharing reliable data. In 1998, I worked with Democrats and Republicans to create and run the Security for a New Century Study Group. We had Senate and House staff meet with objective experts on emerging national security issues.

Our technology was quaint by today’s standards. The program was organized on a desktop email platform and backed up with traditional hard-copy “Dear Colleague” letters. Yet the group ran for 13 years and included thousands of staffers.

People who care about our future have never had better tools to communicate with and influence Congress. Proximity to Capitol Hill is no longer mandatory.

But having the technology isn’t enough. Individuals with expert knowledge will need to organize themselves to be of service. And Congress will need to recognize their expertise as an invaluable asset.

We need to get our House (and Senate) in order.

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