The Confessions of Congressman X
A very well-timed confession
By Daniel M. Ryan
I have to say: the timing of the short but eye-opening book The Confessions Of Congressman X was morbidly exquisite. Less than half a week after I got my copy, Omar Mateen spent three hours in The Pulse nightclub cold-bloodedly murdering forty-nine people and injuring about fifty. It was the worst cold-blooded mass murder in the United States.
While I was going through my copy, the national press was reporting breathlessly on the surreal sight of President Obama and his supporters once again blaming guns and seizing upon the usual whipping boy the AR-15 "assault rifle." Never mind that the narrative was inaccurate in two telling ways. Not only were the gun grabbers wrong on the model, but they were also wrong on the capabilities of the AR-15. If it's fair ball to call Donald Trump the "Dunning-Kruger candidate," then it's certainly fair ball to call the gun controllers the Dunning-Kruger faction.
Once again, we've been blitzed by "common sense" which - with only a simple modification of the target - would have been right at home in a Southern-fried chapter of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. "This is Billy-Joe Jim-Bob: a man who abides by the law, fears God and is mindful of his duties. Until he gets a bottle in his hand, that is. Once he drains this bottle, this respectful no-trouble citizen becomes a violent criminal. Now there are those who want to blame Billy Joe; they want us to forget what he's like when he's enjoying God's sobriety. But we, with our eyes, our ears and our common sense, know that Billy-Joe is as law-abiding as any other decent man provided that the Demon Rum is banished.
"There are those who say that the Demon Rum is put on this earth to help folks enjoy life. But we know better! We see, with our eyes, our ears and our common sense, that the Demon Rum only brings misery, fecklessness, barbarity and the sufferings of all those children. Common sense folks like us know this: there's only one reason for liquor, and that's to get drunk. And as the sad case of Billy-Joe Jim-Bob and many like him show us, to turn law-abiding decent men into dangerous outlaws."
The parallel between the gun controllers' "common sense" and the "common sense" of this kind of Prohibitionist is so plain, I'm surprised that more liberals aren't embarrassed by it. Both examples of "common sense" show exactly the same defect. Unsurprisingly, they've elicited the same outrage in the ranks of people who are just as law-abiding when they "indulge" as when they don't.
Compounding the surreality, President Obama has openly expressed his resentment about being pressured to name Omar Mateen's motive even though Mateen openly proclaimed it before he was killed. Any old-style beat cop will tell you that the most solid confession – as part of a solid case - is one where the criminal brags about committing the crime. And yet, we're presented with the spectacle of a President who combined indecisive dithering with rancorous self-righteousness when he's pressured to take Mateen's brag at face value.
There are many who would blame Obama personally, saying that his performance reflects his own personal weaknesses. But the contents of Confessions will give you a different perspective on the matter. Namely: American politics is so partisanized, we're approaching a zone where obvious facts become "controversial" because they clearly favour one side.
Congressman X knows this from the inside, far better than an outsider like your humble author ever will. "I quickly found out devotion to party, PAC loyalty, and getting reelected were the main orders of business." (p. 7) He goes on to say that he was "stunned" by the level of anger and partisanship in politics, not to mention the depths of politicization in regulatory boards. He bemoans the partisan grandstanding, the lack of bipartisan deliberation, and of course the legion of manipulators working the resultant angles. He makes the important point that partisanization is the human shield covering up the corruption we're all sure is rife.
Also aiding it is voter apathy, although Congressman X prefers to shade it in less bland terms. In his opening chapter, he says that too many Americans are plumb ignorant of civics. "Apathy encourages politicians to pull wool over the eyes of constituents. To engage in publicity stunts. To trade votes for campaign contributions." (p. 2) He attributes this apathy to impatience (instant gratification), shallowness (craving for entertainment) and selfishness. He adds that "too busy" is an excuse. (p. 4)
This gap is inevitably filled by partisanship. "Things are so partisan today most folks vote the straight party line, even though they don't know…about who they're voting for. They just don't want the other guy to win." (p. 5)
There you have it. You just read the insider-scoop reason why attack ads usually work. One of the mysteries of present-day America is why a nation that's clearly the #1 superpower of the world also hosts a large cottage industry of doomsayers who insist that America is two steps from imploding and vanishing into the history books. This paradox is resolved by partisan politics: one of the tricks of the trade is yelling that America is doomed if the other side gets in. Naturally this get-out-the-vote doomsaying spills over into the political culture, making for enough doom-and-gloom feeling to make outright doomsaying an evergreen niche.
It is a mistake to chalk up America's woes to partisanship, though. As someone who was born and raised in a parliamentary democracy and a political junkie even when a kid, I can testify that Canadians' partisanship is much stronger than Americans'. In Parliament, MPs vote the party line unless specifically authorized to vote their conscience by the party leader. Consequently, every normal vote is as party-line as the Obamacare vote. An MP voting against his or her leader's instructions is so rare, it's known as "crossing the floor" and is big news when it happens. Partisanship is so normal, it's all-but shocking when an MP bucks his or her party.
This partisanship is so normalized, it spills over into the ordinary members of the party. Instead of being knocked as partisans, they're blandly called the "party faithful." Many of Congressman X's personal complaints about Washington - the pressure on Congressfolks to vote the party line; the power of the senior politicians; even the corruption - are old hat and old news to a citizen of a parliamentary democracy like Canada or the U.K. Instead of decried, they're accepted – even passed along in folk wisdom. "You're either a trained seal or a loose cannon, and loose cannons always fall off the deck." The consequent corruption is also taken in stride. In the U.K., it's known by the bland label "jobs for the boys." Canada settled on a more colorful but equally fatalistic term: "boodle."
And yet, the parliamentary system is devoid of the gridlock that's so often decried. A governing party with a majority of seats in Parliament can pretty much enact what bills it pleases. This is so normal, an experienced political junkie can tell when a long-standing Prime Minister has reached his or her sell-by date. Once a lot of folks complain about the PM becoming a "dictator," the changing of the guard is only a matter of time. It happened to Stephen Harper, it happened to Justin Trudeau's father, and it will happen to Justin himself if he's lucky enough to stay Prime Minister for more than a decade.
With this outside knowledge in mind, it's hard to escape the conclusion that those bill-killing rules that Congressman X bitterly complains about were put in place precisely to prevent the U.S. Congress from becoming a partisanized Parliament.
Back in 1965 and 1966, Lyndon Johnson enjoyed the same all-Democrat-majority Congress that President Obama enjoyed in 2009-10. At that time, a liberal columnist gushed over the speed at which Congress shoved through bills for President Johnson to sign. This columnist compared it to a sleek assembly line.
One of Congressman X's revelations is the not-so-gushy means by which this "assembly line" functions. Representatives and Senators do not read the bills they vote for; their staffers do. These staffers just give an executive summary to their bosses and tell them how to vote; that's all. It's not hard to infer that the same assembly-line alienation is standard procedure for bills that a Congressperson introduces. O, the magic of the assembly line wherein the person you cast your vote for neither reads nor writes the bills. Naturally, the professional lobbyists have picked up on this magic of specialization. One of their tricks is to offer the magic of lucrative career opportunities to staffers they want to influence.
Naturally, many of Congressman X's readers will focus on the means by which the "boodle" gets directed to those ready hands. With this part, he's both instructive an a bit unfair n the average voter. Fact is, the "money clauses" are both subtle and frustratingly hard to find. Remember the days when Obamacare was a bill? It took a self-assembled large team of bloggers to flush out the part that contained the death panels. According to Wikipedia, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act amended ten very lengthy laws plus the Revised Statues of the United States. How could any ordinary citizen scotch out who got what in this morass? Even the Wikipedia non-executive summary of the Act has been flagged for possibly being "too long to read and navigate comfortably."
It's crystal clear that in order to find all the "pay clauses" in that law, you not only need to be a lawyer but also a lawyer in the securities-and-finance specialty. Given the voluminousness of the Act and all those ten others, plus the current hyper-specialization in lawyering, you'd also need a whole team of lawyers with the relevant sub-specialties. All that lawyering talent is going to cost a lot of green. And who are the only folks who can afford to shovel out the necessary valuta? The same people that Congressman X deals with day-to-day: the lobbyists and the very rich donors.
Regarding those folks, Congressman X has done a real service in exposing how the high-flyer insular world of insider Washington really works. He does quite sincerely say that he fights for what he sees as his constituents' interests, even to the point where he states that he bends the truth to do so. But it's clear from his Confessions that he treats the voters in his constituency only as a base for future votes. He deals with them as a group and essentially as strangers. "Political consultants tell me to keep my message simple, vague and forceful. Forget about engaging the intellect of the voters. Most are mentally lazy and bore easily. It's all about style, not substance. Memorable slogans, catchy metaphors, bite-size non-thoughts. Entertain their emotions and you'll win their hearts." (p. 18) Although he laments this, his view on constituency-service show that he prefers it. Part of his constituency service is recognizing certain constituents by mailed birthday greetings, a mention in the Congressional Record, a personal congratulatory call over a promotion and suchlike. Notably, he dislikes this part of the job and considers it inane: "It's all a crock, but happy people mean more votes at the polls. And that's what it's all about." (p. 24)
An old-style pol would aver that this "crock" is the best and most touching part of the job. One of the effects of an assembly-line Congress has been to push out the old-style politician who got a kick out of recognizing his constituents in this way. Instead, we have the new-style assembly-line politician who thinks his job is to set policy. A new breed who thinks that meaningful constituency service means helping constituents navigate red tape and score government benefits. A new wave of pros who at bottom prefer the ordinary bloke to confine himself to pulling levers and treating his Representative's office as a service depot.
Since politics is the archetypical people business, this gap of strangerization has been inevitably filled by the Washington Insider circuit. It not only encompasses elected politicians, staffers and lobbyists, but also journalists and commentators, certain techies and certain Wall-Street types. The result is an unusual hybrid of a trade association and a social club. Congressman X holds himself up as businesslike in this milieu, but it's clear that the distinguishing mark of the Washington Insider's Club is that he and his colleagues know the members personally. This adds a subtle but profound boost to the members of the Club getting their way outside of hot-button issues. We human beings are wired up to be more attentive to folks we know personally than to people we hardly meet and know only as a bundle of well-researched categories. At bottom, Washington insularity is not caused by money and corruption: it's caused by this social-club tight-knittedness. A tight-knit very exclusive club inhabited by professionals like Congressman X, who deeply feels that membership in the Washington Insider's Club is proof that he's arrived.
He isn't very self-aware, but he is self-aware enough to realize that his set of six reforms have no chance of being enacted. With the same realization, your humble keyboard jockey has two reforms that would cut down a lot of the dysfunctionality Congressman X complains about. The first deals with the mind-numbing complexity of the products of the Washington assembly line. The second would cut down the partisanization. For both to work, they would have to be Constitutional amendments. Here they are:
Of course, these two suggestions have zero practical chance of being implemented. But they do show radical surgery is needed before the problems will be cut down to size. Neither of them speaks to the alienation problem, but they do provide an opening for the old-style pols to become electable again. And of course, it would impose a monstrous cost – in time – upon any future bill that's a two-thousand-page wonder. Much shorter bills would make it a lot easier to spot those quid-pro-quos: that's for sure.
Congressman X's Confessions is definitely worth reading and understanding, but it's not worth getting blazingly angry over. As my own Hail-Mary suggestions concur with, the rot and exclusive-club insularity is too endemic to be brought to heel with a white-knight outsider. Instead, content yourself with taking the risky but sensible bet of voting for and supporting the Outsider while fatalistically remembering that Outsiders will not solve these problems. But they do send a direct message to the Insiders that you will not supinely accede to passivity and gloom. At the very minimum, you'll have the pride that comes doing what you can to fight it.
In his reflective 1988 memoir, Barry Goldwater said that the iron rule of politics is to like people. You have to like ordinary people and see them as your fellow humans, else you won't get far in politics. This injunction marks him as an old pol who's been long elbowed out by the likes of Congressman X. As for liking plain folks, the revealing tragedy of Congresman X's high-flying career is that he really doesn't.
Daniel M. Ryan, as Nxtblg, is shepherding the independently-run Open Audi Initiative Prediction Market Shadowing Project. He has stubbornly assumed all the responsibility and blame for the workings and outcome of the project.
BuyThe Confessions Of Congressman X at Amazon.com for only $9.95