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It’s an empty room and hardly anyone’s watching. So why is Congress grandstanding?

Researchers think they have the answer

Microphones stand in front of a bust of former Speaker of the House Nicholas Longworth in the Capitol complex.
Microphones stand in front of a bust of former Speaker of the House Nicholas Longworth in the Capitol complex. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Corrected 12:50 p.m. | Sitting in front of a plain, blue backdrop decorated with only an American flag and the seal of the House of Representatives, Rep. Ralph Norman took aim at his political opponents. 

“Ms. Criswell, you talk about ‘crisis’ — we’ve got a crisis on the border,” the South Carolina Republican began Tuesday. “In seven months, we’ve had over 170,000 illegals cross the border. It’s a medical crisis and it’s a military crisis. We’ve got an inflation crisis — ask any American who’s paying 40 and 50 percent more for gas from foreign countries that don’t like us if that’s not a crisis … along with the food and everything else inflation is hitting. We’ve got a military crisis in Afghanistan. We’ve got 13 dead Marines; we’ve got Americans left behind. We’ve got crises, and this administration has simply not addressed them.” 

It was the kind of debate zinger that partisans would cheer despite the moderator’s feeble protestations, one that would motivate the GOP base and maybe even win over a few independents and Democrats, too.

Only, Norman wasn’t debating Deanne Criswell, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He was questioning her, at a House Oversight Committee hearing on the government’s response to Hurricane Ida and what Congress can do to improve responses to future natural disasters. 

Norman delivered that stem-winder via videoconference from his office while an audience of around 90 live-streamed on YouTube. 

As anyone who has had to sit through a committee hearing will tell you, Norman’s behavior is nothing out of the ordinary. Members grandstand like this all the time, regularly delivering fiery fusillades to empty committee rooms. In fact, Norman was hardly the only one to make an acerbic partisan speech during what was supposed to be a question-and-answer session about disaster response. Ranking member James Comer struck a similar tone in his opening statement, while New Mexican Republican Yvette Herrell asked the FEMA administrator about policy changes that might have caused “a crisis on the uptick in the crossings on the southern border.” (“FEMA’s role is to support the response to disasters. We do not get involved in policy regarding immigration,” Criswell said.)

Republicans weren’t alone in straying from the task at hand. Virginia’s Gerry Connolly was one of a handful of Democrats who felt the need to respond to the GOP’s attacks.

“The Biden administration inherited endless crises from the Trump administration,” Connolly countered. “I mean, everything from an insurrection at the Capitol to a pandemic that was made so much worse by the response — or lack of response — by the Trump administration and by the president himself.”

Connolly then segued into a hypothetical query for the witness, as his five minutes of allotted time kept ticking away. If Congress had failed to pass a continuing resolution last month to fund disaster relief and keep the government running — a measure that 175 House Republicans voted against — would that “have created a crisis for you and could it create a crisis for America?”

Yes, Criswell said with a straight face, a federal government shutdown would adversely affect the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In short, this hearing was a pretty typical example of how Congress works, but it still raises an age-old question: Why would anyone waste their energy writing and then delivering a bloviating tangent that practically no one sees, or engage in a bout of partisan sparring for an audience of mostly committee staff? 

According to new research from University of Essex political scientist Ju Yeon Park, members of Congress grandstand because that kind of behavior wins them more votes — not necessarily the shouting in a vacant hearing room, but taking every opportunity, no matter how small the audience, to spout off campaign rhetoric.

“When a member grandstands more in a given Congress than in the previous Congress, their vote share tends to increase,” she writes in a forthcoming article for the American Political Science Review.

Park used artificial intelligence to analyze members’ statements in committee hearings and label incidents of members engaging in grandstanding, which she defined as political theater, badmouthing the other side, praising their own, grilling witnesses or taking policy positions (as opposed to soliciting information to inform a bill’s text). Based off of changes in a member’s “grandstanding score,” she found members with little legislative power — think backbenchers and the minority party — tend to grandstand more than those better positioned to get their bills onto the president’s desk. 

Park then looked at whether members who upped their grandstanding did better in their next election. Most members don’t change their speaking style that much, but among those who did, Park found a correlation: Even controlling for other factors like the district’s partisan slant and seniority, members whose grandstanding score jumped by more than 10 points saw a 6.6 percent increase in their vote share on average.  

Most committee hearings go unnoticed beyond the Beltway, so it’s not that grandstanding there translates directly into votes — although some harangues can go viral and earn the speaker fame and (campaign account) fortune, as Democratic Rep. Katie Porter of California can attest. (As a freshman member, the former law school professor frequently used a white board and the Socratic method to make Wall Street CEOs and Trump administration officials look foolish, leading delighted Democrats to make her one of the top 10 fundraisers in the House in the 2020 cycle.)  

Rather, it’s that the person who increases their partisan diatribes is spouting those poll-tested party lines everywhere else, too. “Members’ grandstanding efforts in committee hearings is a good proxy measurement of their overall effort to make public political messages elsewhere,” said Park, who focused on the two decades between 1997 and 2017.

‘Moral arms race’

Lawmakers hold forth for the same reason anyone else does, said Brandon Warmke, a professor of philosophy at Bowling Green State University and co-author of “Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk.”

“Grandstanders use moral or political discussion to get social prestige or social dominance,” Warmke said. “A politician has those incentives but also extra incentives because if you look at the way voters vote, they say they are looking for someone who shares [their] values.”

A member doesn’t even need to sit on a committee to secure the kind of attention and funds that’ll make their electoral defeat all but impossible: the House, including 11 Republicans, voted to kick Marjorie Taylor Greene off her committees in February, after she made a series of anti-Semitic remarks, but she still reported $3.2 million in the first quarter, a staggering amount for a freshman lawmaker.  

Warmke and his co-author, Justin Tosi, looked at grandstanding more broadly than Park, defining it as “use of moral talk for self-promotion.”

Politicians in particular showboat because it’s an effective way to show voters they share their values. Voters rely on those perceived values when they’re deciding who to support because actually tracking a member’s legislative work is a full-time job.

“What a lot of politicians do is they exploit the rational ignorance of voters,” said Warmke. “Most voters don’t have time to study economics or the history of housing policy.”

Previous research out of the University of Virginia and Vanderbilt University showed a representative’s law-passing skills have no significant impact on vote share in general elections, mostly because voters have no clue whether their representative is any good at passing laws or not. (Good lawmaking incumbents do get a small boost in the primaries, mostly because they face fewer legit challengers.)

Not everyone who has pronounced their political beliefs unbidden is guilty of grandstanding. For Warmke, the critical distinction depends on the purpose behind the statement: Standing up and declaring how disgusted you are with the other side — when you are, in fact, disgusted — wouldn’t be grandstanding. But it would be if the end of such preaching were simply to get likes, followers or retweets from either the red or blue choir.

Grandstanders also tend to hold more extreme views, Warmke said, and “there’s evidence that their grandstanding has led them to become further left or further right.”

“A lot of what you see on the political fringes is a moral arms race,” he added.

This leads to a vicious cycle of polarization, which endangers the very concept of cross-party cooperation. “If your side is being pushed to one edge, and the other side is being pushed to the other [edge], why would you compromise with someone who is evil?” Warmke said. “Why compromise with someone who hates you, who wants to wipe you off the face of the earth? In this context, all compromise is a rotten compromise.”

Sound bite nation

In a parliamentary system of government, the improbability of political compromise wouldn’t be much cause for concern. But with the Constitution’s separation of powers, a bicameral Congress with a super-majoritarian Senate, and first-past-the-post elections that produce a two-party system, it’s a recipe for a constitutional crisis — like if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling, which could force the Treasury to act unilaterally, lest it violate Section 4 of the 14th Amendment, “The validity of the public debt to the United States, authorized by law … shall not be questioned.” 

Media plays a role in perpetuating this loop, but reporters in turn find themselves under similar incentive structures — stories that outrage readers tend to outperform those that inform them. Journalists didn’t create the market for grandstanding, but they play a middle-man role that can exacerbate the phenomenon, Warmke said.

Like parents who mollify a tantrum-tossing toddler with candy in the checkout lane, society reinforces lawmakers’ polarizing antics with attention, which, for politicians, is a reward sweeter than any sugary treat.

“It’s a huge collective action problem because the thing that doesn’t help people the most is the thing that gets them elected,” said Warmke. “How do you get 100 million people to stop caring so much about sound bites?”

Warmke thinks the way out of this mire may be demanding more honesty and humility from politicians. “There are tradeoffs for everything … if a politician is not willing to be open about downsides of their policies, then don’t vote for them,” he said.

“Journalists should ask politicians for the downside of their proposals, and don’t leave the room until they give them,” Warmke said. “And make fun of them if they don’t.”

This report was corrected to accurately reflect the publication history of Park’s research.

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