Nobody to blame but us


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Americans don't have all that much confidence in Congress. Since 1973, the number of Americans who have said that they have confidence in Congress as an institution has only surpassed 40 percent four times. Though as bad as Congress's historical record has been, it has inspired less confidence in recent years. In fact, according to Gallup's most recent survey, Americans have less confidence in our foremost legislative institution than they do in banks, big business, and HMOs.

There is little doubt that this collapse of confidence stems from the fact that many view Congress as a broken institution. It is rather astonishing that anyone views Congress as anything else, considering that this most recent Congress struggles to conduct routine legislative responsibilities.

The reasons for this dysfunction are numerous, but I think it is far from controversial to point to polarization as the key contributing factor. This is especially true when you consider that the ideological gulf between the parties in this most recent Congress is abnormally large. However, while it is clear is that polarization has contributed much to cultivating an impotent Congress, what is less clear is why Congress is so polarized.

Now would be an appropriate time to talk about the Congress we "need" and the Congress we "deserve," but I think that discussion would actually distract from something far more important: Congress is broken because we as voters are sending our elected officials the wrong signals.

Many people blame gerrymandering — to be sure, gerrymandering exacerbates many of the underlying problems, but senators are elected statewide and it is not as if the Senate has escaped the polarization trend. Furthermore, meticulous research has revealed little reason to think that gerrymandering is to blame.

Some blame the influence of money, and again I advise caution. The influence of centralized monetary interests on electoral and legislative outcomes is well-documented, but the link between money and polarization is weak at best.

Still, others blame institutional rules in clear need of reconsideration. However, the abuse of institutional rules such as the filibuster to the point of turning the Senate into a minority-ruled body is more a symptom than a cause of polarization.

That all having been said, I offer a bracing dose of good, great, and bad news.

The good news is that recent research has shed light on what appears to be driving the polarization trend and making partisan compromise less tenable. The great news is that we as voters can pretty much correct this problem at any time. The bad news is that correcting this problem will require a large-scale shift in the way we as voters reward our elected officials.

A recent paper by Philip Jones exploring the relationship between constituents and their representatives has provided compelling evidence that how voters reward elected officials has done us all the considerable disservice of producing a highly polarized legislative body inhabited by officials with no incentive to compromise.

Jones studied whether voters were more likely to vote for incumbent senators based on their policy stances or the state of the national economy and the occupation in Iraq. Even after controlling for party affiliation and ideological similarities, Jones found that voters were far more likely to vote for an incumbent based on his policy stances than they were to vote for an incumbent based on "peace and prosperity" policy outcomes.

This information does a lot to explain why it is lawmakers appear increasingly incapable of governing — which in our system of government requires some degree of compromise.

If deviating from previously established policy positions poses significant electoral risks and legislative outcomes provide few (if any) electoral incentives, it is no wonder elected representatives would rather grandstand than seek grand bargains.

Furthermore, if voters care a lot about policy stances and little about policy outcomes, there is nothing standing in the way of people who hold extreme ideological views — which make compromise impossible — from obtaining elected office.

If we as voters want a Congress that functions, than we need to reward officials who are dedicated to making that happen. I am not saying that we should support squishy candidates who lack an ideological core, but I am saying that it is high time we support candidates that prioritize governance over ideological fealty.

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