Why bother?

Photographer: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Demise of Local News May Be Ruining Congress

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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For several senators up for re-election this year, a significant problem is that no one in their home states knows who they are. This is a consequence, as the Washington Post’s Paul Kane points out, of the collapse of local newspapers:

Overall, there are more reporters covering Congress than ever, except they increasingly write for inside Washington publications whose readers are lawmakers, lobbyists and Wall Street investors. A Pew Research Center study released earlier this year found that at least 21 states do not have a single dedicated reporter covering Congress.

It isn't clear yet what that means for elections, although it’s not going to bother most people if incumbents have less of an advantage than they once had.

What’s important is the potential impact on Congress.

David Mayhew, in his classic study of incentives for members of Congress ("Congress: The Electoral Connection"), identifies three things politicians may do to secure re-election: advertise (including all efforts at publicity, not just paid ads), claim credit for accomplishments, often ones which benefit their districts, and take positions. They all depend quite a bit on the assumption that the media will notice when a member of Congress does something that will have an effect on the constituents he or she represents.

Suppose the president proposes a new initiative. If a member of Congress is aiming at re-election, presumably the best choice is to determine (or guess at) the preferences of the district and endorse whatever the constituents want.

This is a good plan if the local newspaper’s Washington bureau is going to write up the story (with a photo even) and include a quote about what local politicians are saying -- and if sizable numbers of voters in the district subscribe to that newspaper.

Since neither of those assumptions now holds, the calculus changes. More and more politically active voters get their news from national partisan TV, radio and digital outlets. Less engaged voters can easily tune out all political news, at least until the height of election season. So the safest bet for an incumbent is going to be to echo the party line (which will normally mean no coverage at all) or, better, just to keep his or her mouth shut. Why stick with the district's needs over party loyalty when no one in the district will ever hear about it -- except the die-hards who support the party line no matter what?

The same goes for proposing something with benefits for the district -- say, a new grant program designed so a local hospital could add a new wing.

In the old days, a senator might hope to receive positive media coverage when he or she introduced the bill; when a committee held hearings; when the bill passed the Senate; when it cleared the final congressional hurdle; when it was signed into law; when the new program was funded (in a separate appropriations bill); when the hospital won a grant; at a ground-breaking ceremony; and at the ribbon-cutting when the construction was completed. Maybe a few more times, too.

But now most of those steps are becoming invisible to most people in the district. No, not completely: The hospital administrators will know all about it, at the very least. But if the rewards for action are reduced, fewer and fewer members of Congress are going to bother.

I don’t know how much the changes in media coverage caused the atrophy of the committee system and Congress’s ability to do its job. But it’s easy to see how rank-and-file members have fewer incentives to be productive, and more incentives to merely vote with their party’s leadership and do little else.

The demise of state and local political reporting is often thought of as a potential threat because, without a vigorous press, no one will expose malfeasance, and politicians will have weaker reasons to avoid corruption. But perhaps the reduced incentives for good behavior by these elected officials are an even bigger reason to despair.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net