Serving in Congress - Then and Now
A soon-to-be retiring member of the House looks at the high cost of maintaining political altitude
AS I begin my final year in Congress before retiring, I look back 15 years and realize how very much the "rules of play" for congressmen have changed.
Shortly after I assumed office in 1977, a senior colleague counseled me: "Don, pay attention to your constituent newsletters - they will re-elect you."
My colleague's advice reflected his experience as a congressman during the 1960s and 1970s. It was good advice, but even as it was given, it had already begun losing its relevancy. Today, it almost seems quaint.
Back then, three or four newsletters per year from one's congressman made a real impact. Today, the ways in which citizens learn about Congress and their representatives are vastly different.
Furthermore, citizen attitudes about the news they receive regarding Congress reflect critical social and economic changes in the United States.
From the 1950s into the 1970s, America was expanding and prospering. Federal revenue grew even faster than the nation's economy. Congress could enact new social programs without trimming back existing programs and without hiking the federal debt significantly. Presidents, both Republican and Democratic, cheerfully signed legislation creating the new programs. In times of recession, taxes could be cut and public works boosted.
In short, the news from Congress was mostly good, and it was reported to citizens mainly by the print media - newspapers and magazines - which had the time and space to provide depth and perspective to readers who in turn had the time and inclination to pay attention.
Politically, there was relative stability. Citizens generally identified with one major political party or the other. Local political organizations had active adherents and made a real difference in elections. Campaigns for Congress were straightforward, moderate in cost, and predictable.
Then a number of things occurred to profoundly affect how congressional campaigns are run and national laws are made.
Chief among them was the growth of television, which began to hit its stride in the 1970s as an influence on Congress. I can think of at least four ways TV has changed the political landscape.
For starters, it has helped distract Americans from former norms of civic responsibility. In some areas more than 54 cable TV channels now tempt citizens away from civic involvement and away from reading newspapers, magazines, and books that might give them more knowledge and perspective regarding public affairs. The average American family now watches roughly 50 hours of TV each week.
Second, the networks tend to trivialize news from Congress. Essentially, television is an entertainment medium, and that truth is manifest in network news broadcasts. Most Americans, especially young people, now get the bulk of their news from TV. In my view, they are poorly served by 30-minute newscasts in which each news item receives a minute or two of air time.
Third, 30-second TV commercials have, since the mid-1970s, become the dominant force in closely fought congressional elections.
When voters enter the booth on election day, they likely will have been influenced more by a two-week string of negative TV spots than by two years of legislative effort, personal campaigning, newspaper articles, newsletters, and candidate forums. It is not TV's fault that 30-second spots are so powerful, but the power has an immeasurable punch at the polls.
Finally, 30-second commercials pack a one-two punch, and the second is their enormous cost - a single spot on one station in a major media market can cost more than $10,000. Representatives and their challengers must reckon not only with the power of TV ads but with the necessity of raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for them.
Mention of campaign fund-raising calls to mind political action committees and the interest groups that organize PACs. Many members have turned to PACs for needed funds, thereby endowing them with greater importance.
Like television, PACs have developed over two decades into a major influence on Congress. Through the use of ever more sophisticated computer data banks, Americans are constantly encouraged to act according to pecuniary or "hot button" individual interests with little regard to community or national interests.
In contrast to earlier periods, interest groups are now a significant source of information to voters regarding Congress. To be sure, the information is fragmented, with each interest group reporting only congressional action and individual representatives' votes on issues of concern to its members. But information is conveyed. A member of Congress must assume that each vote cast gets reported back home to the constituents who care most about that particular vote.
To round out my contrasts with then and now, let me cite the informational role (often destructive, in my opinion) of radio talk show hosts; the decline of local political parties along with nearly all public-affairs organizations; the growth of two-worker and single-parent families for whom there is little discretionary time for civic involvement; and the plethora of recreational diversions that affluence has brought.
And, most especially, the change in the nation's economy. Growth rates have declined, family incomes have stagnated, the rapid escalation of federal revenue has ceased, federal deficits have skyrocketed, spending has become a "he-wins-you-lose" proposition. The political situation is anything but stable.
How do members of Congress react to these large changes in the atmosphere in which the legislative game is played? Two reactions stand out in my mind.
First, members of Congress are increasingly skittish. That is to say, members are cautious and careful. They are acutely aware, for example, that votes on certain issues - abortion, homosexuality, flag-burning, crime - can be turned into negative TV commercials. Too frequently "safe" votes win out over "right" votes.
Representatives prefer not to bring controversial bills to a vote in the House or, if a vote is unavoidable, they water bills down to make them less objectionable to interest groups. Major legislation (like last year's banking bill) crawls through months of work in committee because members are loath to make necessary compromises that might offend one group or another.
On issues of broad interest, such as tax increases, some members refuse to jeopardize their own careers for what others may consider the national interest. The 30-second negative TV spot syndrome makes it extraordinarily difficult for congressional leadership to corral a majority of votes on such legislation.
Besides being skittish, members of Congress cope with the new rules of the game by being adaptable.
Press aides assiduously pursue networks and local stations for appearances for their bosses. Representatives produce their own TV shows and mail them to local stations; they react instantly to breaking news with self-initiated satellite transmissions; they learn to comment on complex issues in 10-second sound bites.
At campaign time, members of Congress develop their own 30-second negative TV commercials to blunt the TV attack of opponents. They steel themselves to the notion of budgeting $20,000 for a media consultant; $25,000 for a pollster to guide the content of TV spots; and $400,000 and up to pay for air time.
If special-interest groups use increasingly sophisticated technology to target Congress, members adapt with modern technology of their own. In-office computers spew out "personal" replies when some group generates thousands of postcards on an issue. The name of anyone who ever writes to his or her representative goes into a massive data bank for future mailings.
Adaptability extends, of course, to campaign finance. If campaigns cost a half million dollars or more, then the money must be raised. Representatives, even those who hate raising money, become very good at it. Political action committee directors are cultivated, home-district PAC contacts are established, PAC "events" (at $300 to $1,000 per attendee) are organized by a representative's own fund-raisers or by hired professionals.
Nor do congressional fund-raisers neglect the marvels of computer technology. Prospective large ($1,000) donors as well as smaller donors go into the computer not only from with-in a congressman's district, but also from the entire nation.
And so, with adaptability the watchword, the work of Congress goes on. Candidates run and the winners go to Washington. Congress organizes, hearings are held, decisions are made, legislation is enacted. The nation's problems get addressed (how well may be another question).
Still, I yearn on occasion for the times when problems were more tractable, when the nation's economy was growing, when federal fiscal resources were adequate, when voters were more engaged in the democratic process, when television, computers, special-interest groups, and fund-raising were not so influential on elections and legislation.
The age-old question arises: It's change, but is it progress?