December 14th, 2010
Also published on The Huffington Post
John Boehner’s tears may have overshadowed the substance of his 60 Minutes appearance last Sunday, but he did mention some “serious” policy options in his time on screen. I put “serious” in quotes for a good reason, because looking below the surface of one at least one of his ideas suggests just how un-serious he is about the job of governing.
Talking with Leslie Stahl, The Speaker-to-be made the following grand proposition:
Well, how about we start with cutting Congress? I’m going to cut my budget, my leadership budget five percent. I’m going to cut all the leadership budgets by five percent. I’m gonna cut every committee’s budget by five percent. And every member is gonna see a five percent reduction in their allowance. All together that’s $25-$30 million and it likely would be one of the first votes we cast.
Great idea, right? After all, who wouldn’t want to spend less on an institution that’s raised pork-barrel politics to a high art? Well, actually, anyone who wants a functioning representative democracy in an age of easy digital communications. Boehner’s idea may SOUND populist in a starve-the-beast way, but in reality it doesn’t even rise to the level of faux populism — it’s actually deeply ANTI-populist, since it will make it even harder for members of the House to listen to their own constituents.
Congress shouldn’t have a problem finding out what the voters think, since the people have been quite happy to tell them by letter and phone for years, and as digital communications have removed the already-low barriers to contacting Congress, they’ve been doing it A LOT more. Between 1995 and 2005, for instance, the volume of messages arriving in Congressional offices from all sources quadrupled to roughly 200 million per year, and this was before the rise of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (for details, see page 14 of this CMF report). Now? Even well-run operations can drown in a sea of constituent communications, and it’s hard to see how a staff cut would do anything but make the situation worse.
Besides unleashing a flood of individual messages, the internet age has also helped to create a whole new category of organizations that are almost entirely digital creations. MoveOn.org, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and the Tea Parties are just a few of the political entities funded and organized online that devote their time to stirring up the masses. And of course, they’re joined by thousands of older nonprofits and trade associations that have also learned to use online tools to mobilize millions to barrage our elected officials.
All of these communications add up to clutter, to immense amounts of noise in which even the best staff will struggle to find a clear signal. Who benefits? Lobbyists, of course — they’ll still have access to the members and the staff, regardless of whether or not constituent messages can even be counted. Just as term limits have the perverse effect of giving power to the lobby (if members are term-limited, lobbyists and a handful of long-term staff become the only institutional memory), cutting Congressional budgets will in practice create even more distance between Congressmembers and the people they represent. An anti-populist idea indeed, no matter how much faux populism Rep. Boehner attempts to trowel on top of the it.