Kelly makes the point that, although the current atmosphere in Congress is characterized with polarization, gridlock, near-constant campaigning, and a flood of special interest money, it's not necessarily true that Congress is the dysfunctional, corrupt mess that it is easy to dismiss as. "Lawmakers aren't corrupt, they just never hear from ordinary citizens...Congress is less corrupt and venal than it is incapacitated..." says Kelly.
Some very interesting statistics and observations Kelly brought up in her article:
- Current Congresses are working with 60-80% of the policy staff Congresses had in the 1970s and 1980s. That's 20-40% less staff than before.
- Congressional offices are receiving 800% more correspondences and communications traffic since 2000. This is, of course, largely due to the Internet.
- A rules change dating back to the 1990s that attempted to consolidate information between members led to disseminated "talking points" by party leadership and decreased member-to-member contact. While this had good intentions, it damaged the long-term institutional ability for Congress to develop research and information on its own.
All in all, this presents a very interesting development in which members, lacking the staff to conduct policy research and inundated with information, increasingly rely on interest group support, which provides for clear, well-presented, easy to understand talking points amid the noise. These points then end up dominating in circulation and, consequently, in the debate and discourse about the particular issue, even shutting out alternative points of view.
This development is facilitated by the growing "grassrootization" (I coined this for the lack of a better term) of interest groups such as the NRA (which Kelly uses as a case example). For example, the NRA dispatches representatives to live in target states and districts, allowing them to operate locally. In turn, they become part of the voice of constituencies, except unlike the ordinary citizen or local organization, they have much more resources to be especially vocal. Of course, the members will then respond to the most vocal in their constituencies, at the expense of ordinary concerns.
Kelly tackles a lot more issues in her article, but I thought this was particularly interesting. We all know that interest groups, both left and right in their orientations, are well-funded and well-organized. However, it was surprising to me that Congress simultaneously weakened itself in the face of stronger interest group influence, exacerbating the situation.