Early Returns

An Unhappy Congress Is Not a Good Congress

Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.

Down in the dumps.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

No one feels sorry for members of Congress. Nor should they, but we probably should care about their working conditions, which are pretty much awful right now:

Congress scholar Josh Huder reacted with a blunt assessment: "Congress is a crap place to work. More crap than any time certainly in recent history, but likely distant history too." Moreover, he pointed out why it matters: If the main thing members of Congress do is dial for dollars, the results will be a legislature full of very rich folks who have little interest in or aptitude for legislating. 

My entirely subjective opinion (for what it's worth) is that for whatever reason, that's become more of a problem in the House than in the Senate. Not the rich part: U.S. senators are very wealthy. But I do think there's less dead wood in the Senate now than there was, say, 10 or 20 or 30 years ago. On the other hand -- and again this is just purely guesswork on my part -- the average quality of members of the House has been lower this decade than at any point in recent history. 

Of course, you learn in part by doing, and there's been very little legislating at all since January 2011. Not none, but a lot less than usual. 

The outcome I'd hate to see would be the rotting away of Congress's "transformative" powers. It's possible to imagine that eventually it could evolve into an "arena"-type legislature, in which its main function is to debate the president's policy choices but not to make its own choices. Congress's control over executive-branch departments and agencies -- such as its influence over the Federal Reserve -- could also erode over time. That wouldn't end U.S. democracy. But the result would be a far less robust democracy, with citizens and groups finding it much harder to reach points of influence within the system. And it also, as many have pointed out, would fit poorly with the constitutional structure, leading perhaps to constitutional crises. 

All of which are very good reasons to find ways to make service in Congress more appealing for talented, civic-minded (or, for that matter, power-hungry) citizens. 

Now, to be fair, neither House nor Senate retirements have spiked in recent electoral cycles, with only one senator so far calling it quits instead of running in 2018. So perhaps there's less here than meets the eye. But I don't think so. I think McCain and Huder are exactly correct.

1. Erica Chenoweth and Jeremy Pressman at the Monkey Cage have their monthly report on political protests and other activism.

2. Dhrumil Mehta at FiveThirtyEight has the data on the news media paying less attention to Puerto Rico. Which probably is one of the reasons (but of course no excuse for) the Donald Trump administration has been slow to act.

3. You know what also can't be helping with Puerto Rico? That Trump still hasn't nominated a new Department of Homeland Security secretary. Politico's Andrew Restuccia and Eliana Johnson report that the White House isn't close to doing anything about it after two months. 

4. My Bloomberg View colleague Megan McArdle on the Trump -- and Reagan -- tax bills

5. And a little fun: Yair Rosenberg has a Yom Kippur list of social media sins to atone for. 

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    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

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