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Lorelei Kelly

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Dumb by Design: Gingrich's Lobotomy of Congress and Today's Dysfunction

Posted: 11/29/2011 7:59 am

While there was much to be thankful for last week, the rise of Newt Gingrich in the GOP polls made some of us eat the apple pie early. We were afraid it might rot like so many other fine American institutions -- namely the United States Congress. It was, after all, former Speaker Gingrich who served us this spoiled mess.

Congress is loathed by most Americans. With disapproval ratings at around 80%, people don't believe that the institution looks out for their interests, jobs, individual freedoms, or even their national parks. The legislative branch can hardly keep the government open. Its budget "super committee" deserved to fail. It was a sclerotic consolidation of power that happened while the rest of the world was redistributing it. Electronically linked citizen occupations have spread from Wall Street around the globe, leaving most elected leaders gasping for a response. Congress' institutional failure to modernize its worldview is not just because of our current spasm of revenge politics. Its incompetence is real. It cannot think for itself. And its low IQ is not an accident, it is an outcome. Reversing this trend with decentralized expertise and convening is a significant next step for Americans who sympathize with the Occupy movements.

Every new session of Congress includes a Rules package that reflects the priorities of the majority and determines legislative process. In January, 1995, H. Res. 6 wiped out the shared system of expert knowledge and analysis inside Congress. The bill made Congress dumb -- on purpose. This action was part of the Contract with America, a reform manifesto drafted by Gingrich (GA), the new Republican Speaker. Fifteen years later, the effects of a severely depleted institutional memory are showing up. Last August's debt ceiling debacle is one example. Our failure to match defense dollars with today's vastly changed global security environment is another.

The legislative knowledge gap is especially debilitating for issues that require context, forecasting and expert judgment. This is a significant problem in the modern world, where Congressional actions have global implications, but Members fail to connect the dots. Notable staff losses included the Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus, the Office of Technology Assessment, and the bipartisan Democratic Study Group, a rapid response team of researchers. Shared committee staffs were slashed. Many experts at the Congressional Research Service left. The Sunlight Foundation reports that its present staffing is at 80% of 1979. Lacking a coherent or compelling domestic constituency, global issues have never been popular in the House. After 1995, they received even less attention. And although the Republicans delivered the catastrophic blow, the neglect has been bipartisan. Neither party ever replaced the lost capacity.

The House of Representatives is a social network -- a marble sandbox. Congressional staff own the durable relationships that create mutually beneficial outcomes -- a vital presence on Capitol Hill, where powerful egos are seeded like landmines beneath the surface. Today's noisy and volatile world has made the situation even worse. It is true that committees in the House and Senate cover deep policy issues -- but they are not inclusive and their role is not to act as a system-wide coordinator. When the shared informal staff disappeared, Congress lost its ability to reap creative problem solving from the margins. It lost the people who softened the blunt rhetoric. It lost its risk taking space.

From Cairo to San Francisco, centralized systems are collapsing and new technologies are accelerating the trend. We know the power is not inside buildings anymore. We know Congress is overdue for a new model. And today we have the potential to fill the vacuum with distributed groups of experts in each congressional district, helping members reconstitute the Congressional IQ.

The need is dire. Even before the 24 hour news cycle, Congress was a vortex of information with no search engine. Enter lobbyists, who specialize in timely and useful information filtering. But it's Goldilocks vs. Godzilla when it comes to corporate vs. public interest lobbying. Goldilocks is losing. Earlier this year, the House endorsed yet another cut to staff budgets. Last year, lobbyists spent $3.51 billion to influence legislators, a number that will rise as the institutional memory declines.

Those who care about evidence-based decision making have never had better collaborative tools. We can now crowdsource Congress. Local policy engagement (not the "gotcha" town hall, not vulnerable spots like a Safeway parking lot in Tucson) waits to be reinvented. Real-time expert support needs pilot projects. Social network technology is rife with potential for common good outcomes that take into account global implications. Even more important, if we build this support architecture locally, expert judgment will finally be politically meaningful.

Americans who scorn Congress do so with reason. The cumulative effect of those rules changes since 1995 are evident in the cartel-like features of our democracy today. Congress is a place where purchased relationships reap far more benefits than those based on shared social values. We will reverse this trend only when we enable Members to make decisions for themselves based on input from valued constituents.

Our comparative advantage in the world is the practice of democracy. Changing the first branch of government will not happen in Washington, DC, however. It must happen in communities across the USA. It might be satisfying to blame our current dysfunction on the Tea Party, on the Wall Street Occupiers, or in my case, on Newt Gingrich. But our incompetent Congress is not that simple. And we're the only ones who can fix it.

 

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