Congress' Wicked Problem

Policy Paper
Dec. 4, 2012

The lack of shared expert knowledge capacity in the U.S. Congress has created a critical weakness in our democratic process. Along with bipartisan cooperation, many contemporary and urgent questions before our legislators require nuance, genuine deliberation and expert judgment. Congress, however, is missing adequate means for this purpose and depends on outdated and in some cases antiquated systems of information referral, sorting, communicating, and convening.

Congress is held in record low esteem by the public today. Its failings have been widely analyzed and a multitude of root causes have been identified. This paper does not put forward a simple recipe to fix these ailments, but argues that the absence of basic knowledge management in our legislature is a critical weakness. Congress struggles to make policy on complex issues while it equally lacks the wherewithal to effectively compete on substance in today’s 24 hour news cycle. This paper points out that Congress is not so much venal and corrupt as it is incapacitated and obsolete. And, in its present state, it cannot serve the needs of American democracy in the 21st Century.

The audience for this paper is those who are working in the open government, civic technology and transparency movements as well as other foundations, think tanks and academic entities. It is also for individuals inside and outside of government who desire background about Congress’ current institutional dilemmas, including lack of expertise.

It was not always such: less than 20 years ago, Congress operated one of the world’s premier scientific advisory bodies. It maintained an extensive network of shared expert staff--individuals and entities that comprised deep pools of both subject matter and legislative process expertise. Importantly, most of these human resources worked for Congress as a whole and provided symmetrical access and assistance to staff and Members tasked with complex policy decision-making. Before 1995, committee staffs were also larger and more often shared. Joint hearings between committees and between the House and Senate were more common as well. While this former system stands in stark contrast to the one that exists today, it also offers encouragement that we can rebuild an expert knowledge system for Congress--one with even greater capabilities-- by harnessing the technology tools now at hand.

This paper distinguishes between information and knowledge: Members of Congress and their staff do not lack access to information. Yet information backed by financial interests and high-decibel advocacy is disproportionately represented. Most importantly, they lack the institutional wisdom that can be built via a deliberate system that feeds broadly inclusive information through defined processes of review, context, comparison and evaluation of the implications for the nation as a whole. Concurrently, Congress also needs more expert judgment available to it during the policymaking process, which, for the purposes of this paper, means a focus on development of knowledge.

Today’s challenges are especially evident when U.S. national interests have global implications. Not only is Congress notoriously fixated on domestic issues , its ability to understand complex issues in context – and understand second and third order implications – is compromised. We have seen this failure in recent years with lack of action on vital interests that connect us as a nation – such as roads, bridges, power grids and other critical infrastructure. It has also shown up in debates over enforcement of intellectual property rights online, and the limits of military power in Afghanistan. While various factors, well beyond the scope of this paper, stymie forward movement on complex, long term issues, I argue below that the depleted shared knowledge system of Congress is a large part of the problem.

Specifically, knowledge asymmetry within Congress creates an uneven playing field and obstructs forward movement on policy. In the context of this paper, knowledge asymmetry refers to the uneven distribution of trusted quality expertise inside the institution, which hinders the ability of policymakers to see aligned interests and distorts the policy process. A good example of this is the disparity between subject matter information provided to committees versus personal staff in DC and back home in the state or district. Committees on Capitol Hill receive the lion’s share of expertise.

Congressional staff are disaggregated. Take a typical House member. His or her DC based staff work at the center of the largest policy eco-system in the world. Staff back home, however, have much more direct interaction with constituents, yet receive far less substantive policy assistance. This pattern continues despite the facts that globalization has blended local and national policy concerns and that today members spend considerably more time at home.

Two vital legislative processes deserve attention as well. Authorization and appropriations cycles form the bedrock of Congress’ workplan. A distorting knowledge asymmetry today is the imbalance between them. Authorization hearings, for example, are where members engage in discussion, bring ideas to the table and deliberate on policy substance. Ideally, they examine assumptions, make tradeoffs, set parameters, review subject matter and set policy. Appropriations is the process where members allocate money. Authorization, in general, has atrophied considerably over the past decades, with far more institutional and outside bandwidth devoted to appropriations.

Fundamentally, this paper looks at asymmetry in two subsets: expert knowledge provision and expert knowledge sharing.

  • Knowledge provision: Who is providing knowledge during the policy process? What are the distinctions between sentiment (polling, petitions) and substance (peer reviewed, credible data), self-interest and “big picture national outcomes?” A good example of the problem is the inability of Congress to make use of distributed constituent expertise because of a lack of institutionally useful or structured relationships between academic/expert entities and congressional offices.
  • Knowledge sharing: Is the existing system working? Are there new forms of accessible, system-wide, inclusive and trusted knowledge sharing arrangements that could facilitate understanding of complex issues? For example, between House and Senate, committee and committee, committee staff and personal staff, member and constituent.

Meanwhile, Congress' focus on information that addresses the here and now is driven by the most influential information providers to member offices. These are typically politically-oriented groups, advocacy organizations and lobbyists that operate on electoral and budget cycle timelines. Deliberative functions necessary for healthy governance are the casualties of this accelerated pace: comparative macro and micro-analysis, forecasting, context, and institutional memory all go lacking in today’s decision-making environment.

This is not a call to eliminate lobbying. Petitioning your government is, after all, part of the Constitution. As retired Representative Lee Hamilton (D-IN) points out, lobbying is part of the normal deliberative process. He notes that Members of Congress have a responsibility to listen to lobbyists and that they are an important component of the public discussion. “Our challenge” he says “is not to shut it down but to make sure it’s a balanced dialogue."

Ultimately, the political and partisan character of information in our contemporary Congress is not balanced, especially within the ongoing process of policymaking. This current condition contrasts with the broader vision and inclusive capacity of Congress from previous decades, a capacity that provided credible knowledge and bridge building to support the compromises necessary for most policymaking. The issues raised in this paper must be addressed for the policymaking process to get back on track.

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