Robert G. Kaiser is an associate editor of The Washington Post and the author of “Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t,” published this month.
Why is Congress so helpless and so hopeless? We’ve heard all the fashionable explanations: partisan gridlock; special interests and the impact of their campaign contributions; gerrymandered House districts; an excessively partisan president; a benighted Republican Party dominated by tea party radicals.
But the real cause is deeper: Congress is a human institution with a distinct culture, and the modern version of that culture is hostile to creative problem-solving. If we have a mediocre Congress — even when it manages to accomplish something — it is because of the people in it and the culture they have created.
The men and women who now run for Congress have special features. Most of them are much wealthier than their constituents. Surprisingly few have strong policy interests or experience. Most are willing to spend a day or two or three each week asking strangers for money on the telephone, a demeaning but obligatory exercise. Most have internalized an ethical code that allows them to solicit campaign contributions from people directly affected by legislation they vote on. This is not rare or even unusual — it’s standard.