Faith in Government, Unshakable

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Belatedly, I’ve come across the review by Jonathan Martin of Politico of the book Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t by Robert Kaiser, a 50-year reporter and editor at the Washington Post. What struck me was that both of these very knowledgeable Washington journalists seem very clear-eyed about the deficiencies of the legislative process, and yet their understanding doesn’t cause them to question the idea of having government manage every facet of our lives. Here are some excerpts from the review:

Congress is dominated by intellectual lightweights who are chiefly consumed by electioneering and largely irrelevant in a body where a handful of members and many more staff do the actual work of legislating. And the business of the institution barely gets done because of a pernicious convergence of big money and consuming partisanship.

That is Robert Kaiser’s unsparing assessment in “Act of Congress,” the latest volume in a growing body of work lamenting our broken capital….

In the passing of Dodd-Frank, the public interest—however that might be defined—often took a back seat to money, special interests and political expediency.

It did not help, notes Mr. Kaiser, that many members of Congress are politics-obsessed mediocrities who know little about the policy they’re purportedly crafting and voting on. Indeed, it is Mr. Kaiser’s frank and often scathing criticism of Congress that enlivens a book that might otherwise strain the attention of anyone not intensely interested in the regulation of derivatives….

That phone call, writes Mr. Kaiser, underlined a fact of modern congressional life: “Most members both know and care more about politics than about substance.”…

“Of the 535 members of the House and Senate, those who have a sophisticated understanding of the financial markets and their regulation could probably fit on the twenty-five man roster of a Major League Baseball team,” Mr. Kaiser writes. “Members’ ignorance empowers lobbyists and staff.”

What makes “Act of Congress” especially valuable is its detailed portrait of Washington’s influence peddlers and, in particular, the powerful aides who script their boss’s statements, write the bills and often become lobbyists themselves after leaving the government payroll. 

Martin concludes:

Big money, small politicians, and the lobbyists and staff running the place: It’s hardly a new story about Washington. But Mr. Kaiser names names and spares no one.

So the question is, If you understand just how poorly most legislation is crafted, if you understand the corruption and ignorance that go into making rules for 300 million Americans, why are you still wedded to the idea that inevitably ignorant and corrupt people should make rules for everything from health care to banking to retirement to drug policy? 

Both Jeffrey Friedman and Ilya Somin have written for the Cato Institute, and in Somin’s forthcoming book, about the problem of public ignorance and value of a much smaller and less centralized government that could depoliticize decision-making and limit the scope of errors.

Faith in government, like a second marriage, is a triumph of hope over experience.