A Nation Run By Ignoramuses: The Congressional Staffer Edition

No, I’m not talking about precocious progressive pundits, although they travel in some of the same circles. I’m talking about Congressional staffers, most of whom are very young and know very little (although they can be well intentioned). Consider this admission by Alexander Russo, former Congressional staffer and education blogger (boldface mine):

When I worked on the Hill way back in the 90’s (Feinstein, then Bingaman), I often (some would say usually) had absolutely no idea what I was doing, substantatively, or procedurally or politically. I was constantly in need of reliable information, provided quickly, tailored to my specific situation, dumbed down to my level.

And so, as you can imagine, my best experiences with lobbyists were the ones who gave me useful information when I needed it, whether or not it was something they were particularly interested in, and got it to me quickly, in a useful form (amendment language, for example, or a one-page fact sheet, or a formula run).

Gulp. Now this by Matt Stoller (boldface mine):

In 2009, I was a Congressional staffer focused on the complex awkward mash note to regulators that eventually became known as Dodd-Frank. The financial crisis was in full effect, with hearings that for all intents and purposes were held with caps locks enabled. Every week was a new scandal or systemic risk, from AIG bonuses to multi-trillion dollar Fed balance sheet expansions. I didn’t know a lot about how banking regulations interacted with the real economy at the time, but then, it didn’t seem like that was the main criteria for working on the Financial Services Committee. The committee was not set up to do good policy, it was designed explicitly as a fundraising mechanism for new members of Congress. The ignorance of those on the committee was remarkable, to which anyone watching hearings at the time could attest.

…many staffers and members on the committee had a wide and deep well of financial expertise, but it was built on faulty assumptions about credit. The cocoon of lobbyists had created an environment inevitably built on groupthink, on the idea that the big banks were somehow good for society. Staffers had to increasingly ignore the suffering of homeowners and mounds of data on income inequality in order to believe this. This is not so hard to do in DC, there is a lot of money and infrastructure invested in ignorance. Applied ignorance, however, has a psychological side affect. In order to believe that your bad harmful decisions do not invalidate you as a human being, a wonderful sense of aggressive ignorance had to be paired with an almost artistic level of privileged self-pity.

And this is what Stoller means:

A staffer once turned to me after a hearing that ran late and actually said, in typical Capitol Hill asshole fashion, ”our job is so hard”. I looked at his plushy chair and the enormously fun and interesting subject matter before us, and momentarily enjoyed the hatred I felt for him. That was the attitude. Self-pity mixed with ignorance and privilege. My guess is that he’s now working for some trade association for predatory lenders talking about the need for creative credit products to serve under-banked communities, and making an enormous amount in the process. Now, this does not apply to everyone – there are spectacularly brilliant morally upstanding people there, and they are the reason that policy success happens, when it does. But that was/is the general vibe.

This is what happens when you underpay staffers–and for the scientists, they make the equivalent of a postdoc salary. If you want professional, competent, experienced help, then it’s going to cost us.

And it does cost us, often greatly. This another reason why we can’t have nice things.

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