The average tenure of members is at a historic high for the Senate and near a historic high for the House, yet the perception is widespread that institutional knowledge is declining. What gives?
First, members don’t sustain positions on committees as long as they used to. Whereas chairmen of congressional committees previously could stand for decades, Republicans in the House, for example, instituted rules limiting chairmen to six-year terms.
Says Princeton's Mr. Zelizer, who has studied earlier congressional periods, “There was a sort of insider knowledge because of the durability of these positions. People knew each other, they had fought the same battles over decades ... they know how they ticked, they know a lot about their opponents and their allies ... [they] cooperated, often behind closed doors, and gave the culture of Congress a very different feel than it [has] today.”
When members know less about policy, the argument goes, they’re less effective at deciding between policy alternatives and perhaps more likely to kowtow to the wishes of party leadership because they lack strong policy positions.
“There’s less autonomy [today] for committee chairs – people who would serve a decade or more and develop very thick personal networks and institutional knowledge over the course of that period,” says Zelizer.
Insider networks and knowledge built by living near Capitol Hill and spending social time with other legislators play terribly on the campaign trail. But such activities did allow legislators to get to know one another and build knowledge of congressional powers and precedents, especially what is involved in working across party lines.
“The fact that members of Congress don’t really live here anymore ... has changed the House particularly, and it has changed it in multiple negative ways,” said Mr. Weber, the former Minnesota representative. “Members don’t have an opportunity outside of business hours to get to know their colleagues, particularly their colleagues on the other side of the aisle, and it takes away from the time you can spend to think about doing things [legislatively].”