Joseph Gibson has worked in Congress as a senior staff member. He has lobbied Congress. He knows how Congress works.
And he has written a book offering a number of high-minded, idealistic and far-reaching proposals for changing the way Congress does business.
You’d think somebody with that much experience would know better.
First, let’s stipulate that Gibson’s basic critique in “A Better Congress: Change the Rules, Change the Results” is grounded in reality.
There really are “perverse incentives,” as he calls them, that lead Members of Congress not to enact what he refers to with maddening frequency as “wise policy.”
What cannot be stipulated, and what is far from clear in Gibson’s fast-moving 109 pages, is that any changes to the rules and procedures of Congress — much less the ones he recommends — will result in any wiser policies being enacted.
He believes they will but complicates his own task by refusing to tell us what he means by “wise policy.”
And therein lies the problem.
Gibson once worked for the House Judiciary Committee, which is now led by Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) with Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) as ranking member. They have sincere differences over what makes wise policy.
Gibson doesn’t seem to credit those differences as a legitimate exercise of the legislative function. For the author of a high-minded tract on improving the policymaking process, his assertions have a hint of cynicism. (That doesn’t mean he’s wrong, but the internal contradiction can jar the reader).
Politicians want to be re-elected, Gibson tells us. To do that, they need accomplishments. But more than that, they need to be recognized as having accomplishments.
“If Members want press coverage, they must make their proposals newsworthy, not necessarily wise. That sustains their long-term political survival,” he writes.
As a member of the press, I’m not offended by this construction. As a voter, though, I think I might find “wise policy” kind of endearing.
Gibson seems to think that voters don’t like “wise policy.” What voters want, apparently, is unwise policy that benefits them at the expense of everyone else and the nation.
I will pause a moment to register my disagreement, then move on.
From whence comes all this unwise policymaking, of which both sides are more or less equally guilty?
Gibson has several suggestions for ridding Congress of the “perverse incentives” that cause its Members to misbehave (in a policy sense). He is an experienced practitioner who knows the nuts and bolts of the process. But at the heart of his argument is the plaintive cry of every pie-in-the-sky “good-government” advocate who ever took pen in hand. Let’s call it the Rodney King Syndrome come to Congress: Why can’t we all just get along?
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.