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Deep, Dark Secrets of Congress That Don't Make Any Sense

Taking a closer look at a revealing memo about political life that doesn't actually reveal very much.
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Woodrow Wilson addressing Congress in 1916. (Photo: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Woodrow Wilson addressing Congress in 1916. (Photo: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

In a thoughtful piece at Mischiefs of Faction, Peter Hanson questions the value of interviewing politicians about aspects of politics outside their expertise. As an example, he links to this Vox story by an anonymous member of Congress, entitled "Confessions of a Congressman," that purportedly blows the lid off of Congress by revealing nine inconvenient truths that the public is not supposed to know. However, if you read through them, you find that they're either pretty banal, untrue, or contradicted by the other points. I'll go through them one at a time.

  1. "Anyone who is closer to your district than you are will replace you." So much for the incumbency effect. Voters are apparently paying attention to how their member of Congress votes and will dump him if he's not representing them. OK, interesting, but then there's the next point....
  2. Congress panders to big donors. Ah, so members will just vote how their big donors want them to vote. But, wait, as Hanson noted, this totally contradicts point 1. Members can exclusively vote their districts or they can exclusively vote their donors, but they can't do both.
  3. Redistricting gives everyone safe districts, which is why members love it. This is patently untrue. Redistricting may be done to achieve all sorts of ends. Yes, sometimes it's to make everyone's district safer. Quite often, though, it's for one party to acquire more seats. That's usually achieved by making more competitive districts that are slightly favorable to the majority party. This creates more seats that are less safe. The infamous 2004 redistricting in Texas dramatically increased the number of Republican House members elected from that state but made those districts more competitive. Also, members don't necessarily look forward to redistricting. Changing the districts means giving them more voters who don't know them; the first election after a redistricting can be a risky and tiring one for incumbents.
  4. "Both parties have destroyed your privacy at the polling booth." I'm not really sure what he's getting at here. Yes, in most states, party registration is public, even while votes are private, so campaigns can know how voters lean. But that's not the same as knowing how they voted.
  5. Members of Congress just vote their party. Wait a minute. You just said they just vote their districts. Then you said they just vote for what their big donors want. If they're just voting their party, then they must be angering their voters and donors some of the time. How is it that 90 percent of them keep getting re-elected?
  6. Committees are a waste of time. This is one of those areas where it's actually useful to know a member's insider perspective. Obviously, committees are important—that's where much of the work of creating and debating legislation occurs. And just a few decades ago, a great deal of deference was awarded to committees; if they liked a bill, it generally passed. It's quite possible a lot of that deference is gone in an era of strong partisanship.
  7. Members of Congress vote in a way to keep lobbying groups happy so they can get jobs there later. OK, wait, now members are voting how lobbyists tell them? But I thought they voted their districts, or their voters, or their party. What the hell?
  8. The best people don't run for Congress. That's certainly possible, although I suppose the definition of "best" is pretty important here. The system we've devised to pick leaders requires them to raise money, give speeches, meet lots of people, engage in debates ... lots of skills that aren't necessarily important to actually being a good representative. And that might discourage quite a few qualified people from running. As Kristin Kanthak and Jonathan Woon's research suggests, it might be discouraging quite a few very qualified women from running.
  9. We shouldn't be cynical. Got it. And a member of Congress anonymously trashing his institution should really help along those lines.

As I've suggested, there are a lot of problems with this list of difficult "truths." A few of them are interesting and revealing. But some of them just aren't true, and quite a few are contradictory. But probably the most interesting takeaway is the range of influences on a member's vote.

This congressman seems irked by competing pressures from voters, lobbyists, parties, and donors, but that's a major part of the job. Sure, voting on bills would be a lot more fun if members were allowed to just vote their conscience all the time, but we know that's just not a very realistic option in a democracy with any degree of transparency in its politics. Sorry, Congressman X, but this is the business you've chosen.

Seth Masket writes a weekly column on politics for Pacific Standard.