Do members of Congress know what they are doing?

REUTERS/Larry Downing
Robert Kaiser: "It was upsetting to me as a citizen to realize how few members understood the issues they were dealing with."

In addition to being obsessed by politics and blinded by ideology, the vast majority of members of Congress simply lack a substantive understanding of most of the matters on which they legislate, long-time Washington Post journalist Bob Kaiser said last night on the PBS “NewsHour.”

Kaiser is out with a new book, titled “Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t”” in which he looked deep inside the process that created one of the major pieces of legislation of the early Obama era: the Dodd-Frank law that attempted to put in place some regulatory safeguards against a recurrence of the 2008 meltdown of the financial industry that set off the miserable economy from which we are still slowly recovering.

But as he reported on how that bill became law, Kaiser — a very long-time Washington hand — seems to have been shocked and horrified by how few members of Congress had a fundamental grasp of how Wall Street works so they could intelligently try to fix what had gone wrong.

Here’s a transcript of the first minutes of Kaiser’s exchange last night with “NewsHour”regular Judy Woodruff:  

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you are very critical of Congress in this book. You write about the principal preoccupation is politics, instead of legislating, that members are skilled at politics, but not at enacting laws. And yet they were able to pass this big piece of legislation.

ROBERT KAISER: Thanks to two very talented chairmen, Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, who really knew how to make the system hum, and they did it.

But it was upsetting to me as a citizen to realize how few members understood the issues they were dealing with. These are, of course, extremely complicated financial matters, how banks work, how they’re regulated, so on. Not everybody can know this, but I — at the end, I concluded that you could fit the number of experts in Congress on financial issues easily onto the roster of a Major League Baseball team. That’s 25 people. I think that is the max.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is what you write about in the book about the passage of the Dodd-Frank law typical of the way Congress works, or was this unusual?

ROBERT KAISER: Well, it’s unusual in recent times because it was a success. Most of the time now, we don’t get anything, right? We get deadlock. But my hope is that this is a real window on the culture of the Congress, which shows lots of things about if — to remain relevant regardless of what the bill is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is it? Clearly, so much of the book you focus on the principal sponsors, former Sen. Chris Dodd, former Rep. Barney Frank. What was it about them that made this happen?

ROBERT KAISER: Well, Barney — any member of the House would tell you Barney was the smartest member of the House. Republicans agreed about that too. He was really sharp. He really mastered most of these issues.

In the beginning, I thought that was the key fact. Ultimately, I realized Dodd’s political skill, his ability to deal creatively with his colleagues, to win the three Republican votes which he did get which were crucial in the end to the success of the enterprise, was just as important, if not more important, than Barney’s brainpower. But they were very complementary, these two talents.

If you want to read, or watch, the whole interview, it’s here.

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/28/2013 - 09:26 am.

    Whose job is it?

    Kaiser misses the point of the congressional division of labor.
    It’s the politicians’ job to get elected.
    It’s the politicians’ -staffs’- job to write legislation once the politician is in office.
    The most important decision the politician makes is to chose a good staff director; the rest takes care of itself.
    As Kaiser points out, people like Dodd and Frank are the exceptions, and usually just in regard to a particular issue. There are too many issues before congress for ANY politician to be expert in all of them.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/28/2013 - 03:01 pm.

    It could easily be argues

    It could easily be argued that there are good reasons why it is more useful to elect a tool rather than a thinker.

    After all, how could you get people like _______ (fill in the blank) to repeat the inane nonsense unconfirmed by reality that was generated by interest groups for years on end.

    If they were thinkers, not tools, embarrassment might set in after a while.

  3. Submitted by jody rooney on 05/28/2013 - 02:46 pm.

    Come Mr. Brandon – no excuses for Congressmen

    Could we not at least expect a Congress person to ask intelligent questions.

    Say the basic: who, what, when, where, how and why. Those would be questions about the legislation not the impact on their political career.

    Then a show me the data and what are the alternatives would be nice too.

  4. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 05/28/2013 - 03:08 pm.

    Congressional Competence

    It is not just our elected officials that don’t have a clue about the issues that they are legislating about but also the Congressional staff members. A couple of years ago I spent some time on Capitol Hill talking to staff members on the Senate and House Aviation Subcommittees (both Republican and Democratic staff members) about the FAA NextGen program which is slated to replace the FAA’s current radar based infrastructure.

    This is a multibillion dollar program. Every single staff member I talked to had a legal background. There wasn’t a single engineer on the staff. The same applied to the FAA staff that I talked to who were appointed as liaisons to the committees. One staff member was a pilot.

    No one had any kind of technical knowledge about the ADS-B technology that was the underpinnings for this system. All of the information and cost estimates that they were working with were supplied by industry lobbyists, almost all of whom were recycled Congressional Staff members who also didn’t really understand the technology they were hawking.

    The bottom line: MITRE had developed a fully functional ADS-B transceiver using off the shelf commercial cell phone chipsets with a cost of under $400. The least expensive ADS-B transceivers that the FAA would approve at that time cost over $7,000. Instead of focusing on why this equipment was so expensive and fixing the regulations so that the costs could come down by an order of magnitude, the focus of the Congressional Committees was to provide tax payer financed subsidies to the airlines and aircraft owners to make it more affordable to buy this cost inflated equipment.

    There is a pervasive attitude on the part of everyone, both Democrat and Republican, that all you have to do to solve anything is throw money at the problem.

  5. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 05/28/2013 - 03:58 pm.

    People in Congress specialize: Senator Al Franken, for example, has begun to specialize in telecommunication law and government practices that use all forms of telecommunications to spy on us, or business practices that use data gleaned from our use of telecommunications. There aren’t many in Congress who understand that area. But they may understand another if they’ve been around the Capitol enough time and were smart enough to dig into one area, like Franken.

    Who understands Wall Street, really? Financial scheming there is always at least one step ahead of any regulator, and even Dodd-Frank is not a panacea.

    • Submitted by Dan Landherr on 05/31/2013 - 09:36 am.


      Isn’t this the reason Congress has committees? A member of Congress doesn’t have to be an expert on all aspects of governing but they should have a fairly good grasp of the work done by their committee.

  6. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 05/28/2013 - 04:44 pm.

    knowledge of issues

    Or maybe it’s the pervasive attitude on the part of some members of Congress that all you have to do is cut budgets and cut taxes. There are some issues that should not be that hard to figure out. Like food stamps for hungry people. Or healthcare for anyone who needs it. Or free education for every person in America, and free education for advanced education as well. Or trying to control the greedy geezers on Wall Street and in corporations who think they are the be-all and end-all and give not a damn about anyone else. Apple, for instance. It does not take a genius to figure out that wealthy people and corporations are taking end runs around taxes, year after year.

    • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 05/28/2013 - 08:19 pm.

      Not hard to figure out

      Giving food to the hungry, medical care to the sick, education from age3-26 are easy to give away. Paying for these things might be a little harder to figure out. It also does not take a genius to figure out who created the loopholes and exemptions to allow the end runs. Envy=Trash Apple.

    • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 05/29/2013 - 08:42 am.


      Ginny, I love this comment more than you will ever know. You start out by condemning a simplified argument and then waive away any difficulties in moving things in your preferred direction. Take universal healthcare, for instance.
      Even countries that have a single payer, universal approach to healthcare need quite a bit of technical genius in order to implement their programs. There are questions of how much to pay healthcare workers, how much to pay for various treatments, how to encourage innovation, etc. and so on. There are endless (and I do mean endless) arguments on what should be covered. All of these things are ‘hard to figure out’.
      That’s true for the rest of the things on your list too. It’s easy to implement a ‘free’ program but market forces always apply and then things get complicated. Figuring the way through takes more than bashing the rich. If a way can be found at all.
      Don’t take this as a huge criticism. You’ve shown the same understanding of the issues as the congressman from Minneapolis. You can go far!

  7. Submitted by Donald Larsson on 05/28/2013 - 05:27 pm.

    Well, duh!

    Has this scenario ever been different? Can we point to any past Congress in which more than a few Senators and Representatives actually understood the issues that they were voting on? As Paul points out, a good legislator is one who hires good, competent staff members to handle the hard work. With any luck, a few legislators might specialize and actually learn something, but they have to seek reelection, which doesn’t exactly encourage deep study and intellectual credentials (left or right). And we do have those who actively compaign and get elected because of their self-proclaimed ignorance. It may be arguably worse in an era when actual facts get derided by some, but if anything it’s a difference of degree, not kind, I suspect.

  8. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 05/29/2013 - 08:30 am.

    Of course!

    Here’s the problem with expecting every Congresscritter to be an expert: they’d have to be experts on everything. Quite frankly, I don’t expect my Congresscritters to be experts on more than 1 or 2 things, but I do expect them to engage their brains and get some decent experts to inform them. The difficulty is that the political BS gets in the way even if they have decent advisers. It’s actually nice to have a senator (Franken) who actually does some research before opening his mouth. Well, at least most of the time.

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