How Newt Gingrich Made Congress More Stupid Than It Already Was

When the SOPA/PIPA legislative fight broke out, a lot of commentators were upset that Congress had no idea how the internet actually worked. Implicit in that commentary was the notion that this is unusual, when, in fact, I argued this is how Congress usually operates. By way of Digby, Washington state congressional candidate Darcy Burner describes how this ignorance was compounded by staffing policy changes in the House–deliberate changes made by then House Speaker Newt Gingrich (boldface mine):

When Gingrich took control of the House in 1995, he made a bunch of rules changes designed to break the institution, and we’re reaping the effects of some of those today. Reversing them would take a simple majority vote in the House.

Let me give you an example. Why do lobbyists have so much influence? Lots of people give campaign contributions; what is it that lobbyists are doing differently? Right now, most of the policy work in Congress is done by staff whose average age is 26, and who are typically covering 4-6 major policy areas each. If they’re lucky, they might really understand one of those policy areas. So when a lobbyist walks in and says, “Ok, here’s what you need to know about this bill your boss has to vote on tomorrow, here’s how your boss should vote, and here are your talking points,” and that’s the only information they’re given, of course the lobbyist will usually succeed. It wasn’t always this way: there used to be internal think tanks in the House where members would pool their resources to hire deep experts in some topic area. There were, for example, experts on nuclear nonproliferation and arms control. So if a member of Congress wanted to know how big a threat Iran’s nuclear program is, or the impact of some piece of legislation with sanctions, there were deep experts they could consult who were part of their team. Gingrich banned shared funding of staff and canned those expert staffers in order to consolidate power, and as a consequence members have to rely on lobbyists, leadership, or outside organizations like the Heritage Foundation for the information they need. That’s totally fixable – and it could conceivably be fixed in the first week of a new Congress.

To a considerable extent, policy in Washington is enacted by twenty-somethings. They are very eager, very well-educated and credentialed (with a good meritocratic pedigree), and very hard-working. And they are very, very ignorant and naive.

In other words, we have a government run by a bunch of Matthew Yglesiases.

This is yet another reason why we can’t have nice things.

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