Despite appearances – or perhaps because of them – Congress is not as dysfunctional as some believe

 Image source:  VOA
Image source: VOA

By John Ray

Since the publication of the historic Congress: The Broken Branch, observers of life on the Hill have lamented the decline of Congress as a legislative institution. By some measures, Congress produces both less legislation and less substantive legislation now than in the past. The committee system as a technical institution is generally thought to be a shadow of prior eras.

But between the general public, who is disdainful of but generally inattentive to  daily congressional activity, and the regular Hill staffer who is busy as ever, congressional observers are left with a puzzle. Despite being unproductive as measured by bills passed, legislators spend as much time on regular Hill activities like committee meetings, hearings, and Caucus confabs as ever. This is despite a dramatic increase in the amount of time legislators must dedicate to financing their own re-election campaigns, and to the “call time” imposed by party headquarters to help fundraise for co-partisan colleagues and would-be legislators.

This is also despite the unprecedented job security that comes with being a Congressperson in the modern era. Re-election rates are at an all-time high. Why, exactly, this is is not widely agreedupon, but there is no evidence it has anything to do with how long a legislator spends on the Hill. If anything, the combination of job security and increased demands of party leadership lead some to assert that legislators mostly use their time on the Hill to grandstand before C-SPAN, coordinate the floor agenda with the Speaker, and fundraise, as opposed to getting policymaking work done. Why legislators would pursue this strategy when C-SPAN has about 20,000 regular viewers and hearing content does not tend to end up in campaign advertisements remains a mystery.

In a new paper at Interest Groups and Advocacy I attempt to shine some light on this mystery. Inspired by conversations with Hill staffers, agency managers, and interest group representatives that I conducted for my dissertation, I was unsatisfied with the theory that immediate electoral incentives dictate quotidian behavior on the Hill. This theory rests at the core of American political science, but does not necessarily imply that every activity legislators engage in serves a short-term re-election need. Rather, that theory supposes that legislators are maximizers of their careers, broadly defined.

At the same time, this interpretation ignores those who I argue are the primary audiences of the daily activities of Congress: interest groups, lobbyists, trade associations, and the other spokespeople of the various factions whose policy incentives motivated the original design of the republic. I reframed the problem with these organizations in mind. As I describe in the paper, I think of the words spoken by and exchanged with legislators as containing credible commitments rather than cheap talk.

I started by gathering a dataset of words spoken at congressional hearings by any legislator and any witness at those hearings, which are available online from 1990 onward. I then developed a typology of the people who have been invited to congressional hearings over time, with a particular eye toward whether that person worked for an “interest group” traditionally defined. To model whether the content of legislative speech represented a “credible commitment” in some sense, I considered how to measure whether interest groups took the words of legislators seriously.

One meaningful measure of whether interest groups take legislators’ words seriously is if interest groups want to continue to work with legislators on policymaking after legislators retire; that is, if an interest group ends up hiring a legislator to do lobbying or advocacy work. For every legislator in the dataset, I examined various biographical sources and filing records to determine if they had ever worked as a lobbyist or advocate after leaving office. I used a combination of filing forms and biographical records to create a novel dataset of post-legislature lobbying by Congresspeople, as federal filing forms alone often leave out important modes of advocacy and part-time work (and, in the Trump era, are often simply ignored). I then measured the speech affinity (text similarity, essentially) between legislators and interest group witnesses at congressional hearings.

The results showed, consistent with the “credible commitment” view over the “grandstanding” view, that legislators’ speech affinity to interest group representatives correlated with the probability of legislators becoming lobbyists after leaving office, controlling for usual suspects like party, committee, and other factors. Legislators who talked more like interest group representatives were likely to become interest group representatives than those who talked less like interest group representatives. This is observationally consistent with the theory that interest groups take the actions of legislators on the Hill seriously, and sincerely.

Further, some components of the underlying speech dataset I used are not consistent with the notion that the Hill is just a place to practice attack lines. Perhaps surprisingly, using common measures of speech sentiment and complexity, I found that speech on the Hill has not become more acrimonious or vituperative over time, nor has it become semantically less complex (i.e., more television-appropriate). In an era where polarization is high and getting higher, it is not consistent with the notion that the Hill is a place for pure grandstanding to find that the incivility or soundbyte-appropriateness of Hill speech has not increased at the same time.

There is much not to like about life on the Hill. The congressional committees from which my data were derived are understaffed by people who are underpaid and overworked. I trawled hundreds of congressional biographies because federal record-keeping of interest group advocacy is woefully inadequate for the purposes of conducting rigorous research. But despite some of the more grandiose claims of the death of life on the Hill, the day-to-day stuff that not enough people pay attention to is still taken seriously by the public and private interests who keep the shop running whether or not cameras are on.

John Ray is a Ph.D. candidate in the political science department at University of California-Los Angeles, and a senior political analyst at YouGov Blue. Follow him on twitter, check out his academic and his professional work.

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