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Insider Proposes Changes for a Better Congress

Joseph Gibson has worked in Congress as a senior staff member. He has lobbied Congress. He knows how Congress works.

And he has written a book offering a number of high-minded, idealistic and far-reaching proposals for changing the way Congress does business.

You’d think somebody with that much experience would know better.

First, let’s stipulate that Gibson’s basic critique in “A Better Congress: Change the Rules, Change the Results” is grounded in reality.

There really are “perverse incentives,” as he calls them, that lead Members of Congress not to enact what he refers to with maddening frequency as “wise policy.”

What cannot be stipulated, and what is far from clear in Gibson’s fast-moving 109 pages, is that any changes to the rules and procedures of Congress — much less the ones he recommends — will result in any wiser policies being enacted.

He believes they will but complicates his own task by refusing to tell us what he means by “wise policy.” 

And therein lies the problem.

Gibson once worked for the House Judiciary Committee, which is now led by Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) with Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) as ranking member. They have sincere differences over what makes wise policy.

Gibson doesn’t seem to credit those differences as a legitimate exercise of the legislative function. For the author of a high-minded tract on improving the policymaking process, his assertions have a hint of cynicism. (That doesn’t mean he’s wrong, but the internal contradiction can jar the reader).

Politicians want to be re-elected, Gibson tells us. To do that, they need accomplishments. But more than that, they need to be recognized as having accomplishments.

“If Members want press coverage, they must make their proposals newsworthy, not necessarily wise. That sustains their long-term political survival,” he writes.

As a member of the press, I’m not offended by this construction. As a voter, though, I think I might find “wise policy” kind of endearing.

Gibson seems to think that voters don’t like “wise policy.” What voters want, apparently, is unwise policy that benefits them at the expense of everyone else and the nation.

I will pause a moment to register my disagreement, then move on.

From whence comes all this unwise policymaking, of which both sides are more or less equally guilty?

Gibson has several suggestions for ridding Congress of the “perverse incentives” that cause its Members to misbehave (in a policy sense). He is an experienced practitioner who knows the nuts and bolts of the process. But at the heart of his argument is the plaintive cry of every pie-in-the-sky “good-government” advocate who ever took pen in hand. Let’s call it the Rodney King Syndrome come to Congress: Why can’t we all just get along?

Yes, the culprit is a lack of bipartisanship.

“Notably absent … is any incentive … to work with Members of the other party to develop wise policies,” Gibson writes. Here are some of the structural changes Gibson recommends to provide more incentive for Members to work across the aisle:
• Shorter sessions, to make Members focus on fewer agenda items.
• Lower pay, as an incentive not to stay forever.
• Let Members work full-time at other jobs (which they could do with shorter sessions), to keep them in touch with the real world.
• A smaller House, creating larger districts that would be more diverse and elect, presumably, more moderate Members who can get along better with each other.

None of these seem likely to muster much support within Congress.

Other of Gibson’s proposals, though, have at least been talked about seriously by some Members — creation of a committee on repeals, doing away with most campaign finance restrictions and making Senators who want to block legislation via filibuster actually hold the floor to do so.

Gibson is a good diagnostician, and any or all of those might serve the end he seeks.

But other doctors might consider the cure worse than the disease.

In his latest book, “Liberty Defined,” Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) wrote that “So-called moderate politicians who compromise and seek bipartisanship are the most dangerous among the entire crew in Washington.”

Now, either you believe that or you don’t. But Paul has a case to make, just as Gibson does.

This notion that bipartisanship is the highest good, and that more of it would yield better government, has certainly taken root. So has kudzu.

It could be argued, as Paul and others have done, that bipartisanship is actually the problem — me scratching your back and you scratching mine requires the government, i.e., the taxpayer, to buy two scratchers when one would probably be enough.

One example Gibson cites of unwise policy growing out of perverse incentives is the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere,” one of the more well-known appropriation line items of recent times. But it was just the kind of bipartisanship that Gibson prescribes that led to the Bridge to Nowhere. Had rigidly ideological lawmakers hellbent on cutting spending been running the institution, such a thing never would have happened.

The country is divided on questions of monumental import. Many of those questions are fundamental to deciding what kind of country we are going to be. Those kinds of differences, as my Roll Call colleague Stuart Rothenberg recently wrote, cannot be split. Somebody has to win and somebody has to lose.

Gibson has observed Congress from inside and out. His search for the ever-elusive “national interest,” and the “wise policy” that serves it, is a noble one.

If you change the rules, you will undoubtedly change the results.

But it is perhaps telling that his book’s subtitle is “Change the Rules, Change the Results,” not “Change the Rules, Improve the Results.”

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