Mike Pence in 2010, when he was in the House.

Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

What Members of Congress Don't Know

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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How knowledgeable do we expect members of Congress to be? 

Matthew Yglesias raises the issue in a piece in Vox in which he apologizes for being too tough on Mike Pence a decade or so ago when Pence was in the House and when Yglesias was relatively new to covering Washington. It seems Pence, who is now governor of Indiana and near the top of Donald Trump's vice-presidential list, was utterly clueless about the Social Security privatization plan that he and other Republicans were pushing at the time. Yglesias now says it was unfair to single out Pence -- because ignorance of policy is fairly typical, or at least not unusual.

In fact, it is difficult to become well-informed about public policy. Understanding the various plausible approaches to climate change, health insurance, Iranian nuclear ambitions, campaign finance, the legal status of the South China Sea, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, fiscal policy and other important subjects is beyond challenging. Realistically, no one, not even Hillary Clinton, is going to master all of it.

Members of the House, especially, do not have to be well-versed in most areas of public policy. Instead, most of them have traditionally specialized in a few areas, or even just one. The House committee system is set up so that members can develop narrow expertise and trust one another (perhaps along party lines) on everything else. Those who are not on the relevant committee typically never get involved except for voting “yea” or “nay” on the House floor, and knowing the details is usually irrelevant to those votes.

It's true that the specialized knowledge comes in handy when a congressman actually wants to get legislation passed. When they were in the House, Henry Waxman and Barney Frank were able to play pivotal roles in the drafting of the Affordable Care Act and financial-reform legislation (yes, that Dodd-Frank), respectively, because of their many years of dealing with these issues. 

But sometimes a legislator who is seriously involved in legislating does not have to have detailed understanding of the subject area. Political skills – knowing how to read the relevant interest groups and the internal congressional situation on a certain issue, and how to cut the best deals with individual members -- are probably more important overall to getting legislation and policies adopted.

Of course, it's also very useful to be able to fake it -- to sound informed on a wide range of subjects but not to get bogged down in them. This ability to be able to explain to constituents why they are voting for a measure is an important part of representation.

To fake it, however, the members need help, and Yglesias is right to worry that Congress is dramatically understaffed, and that the result is too much reliance on lobbyists and other one-sided sources for information.

Also important is the decay of the committee system, a problem that is made worse by the Republican term limits on chairmen of those panels. To the extent that the party leaders, rather than the committees, make important legislative decisions, it becomes even less important for anyone in the House to know anything.

So I'm not worried about most members of the House being ignorant on most subjects. What is needed is for it to organize itself so that it develops expertise among some members on some subjects, and that's where the current House is falling short.

  1. I'm all for lobbyists pressing their case on members of the House, including presenting them with information -- but the system works best when the politicians also have independent sources of information. 

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