Steve A. Stone
Dear Friends and Patriots,
For decades now we’ve use the term “do nothing Congress.” Do you know where that label came from? It may surprise you. It was created by President Harry Truman. He stuck the 80th Congress with that label because the Republican-dominated body refused to pass legislation to impose price controls and to pass a public housing plan. Gee, when I think of that I want to go and put flowers on the graves of each and every one of those people. Just think – a Congress that pushes back on a progressive Democrat agenda and stops it in its tracks. That’s the kind of “do nothing” I can get behind.
That was then, this is now. For a long, long time our nation has had a series of “do nothing” Congresses, and worse. They seem to oscillate between doing little of nothing or wreaking havoc upon the People and the Constitution.
For much of that time we could tell when a Congress was paralyzed. It was easy. Just wait for a “Respect Our Flag” bill. You know, the one that would criminalize burning or otherwise disrespecting the national ensign. Whenever the press starts to pick up the “do nothing” beat you can almost predict the days before we see another flag bill. They never pass, you know. They aren’t intended to. They’re just gap-filler bills to occupy peoples’ simple minds and passions to distract people from the truth that Congress goes for long spells when it truly does nothing of substance or it does nothing at all.
The wreaking havoc times, yeah those are even worse. That’s how we came to have The Patriot Act. Gee, what an abomination that is. It’s always been an abomination. It should scare everyone, but because they took that act and put the word “patriot” in the title and shilled it as an act of patriotism to allow our government to steal more of our individual freedom and liberty, plus a bus-load of our personal privacy – we never seemed to be worried or to complain. After all … 9-11! Hey, we gotta give a little here and there if we want to be safe from those evil Islamists. Then, of course there was that Obamacare thing. People with a modicum of knowledge and sense knew during the sales pitch it was a scam. Whenever the government tells you it’s going to set up any new bureaucratic management, control and enforcement mechanism, put the IRS in charge, then tell you every family in America will benefit by an average of $2,400 per year – if you’re dumb enough to buy-in you’re just beyond merely stupid – you’re hopelessly and irrevocably so. What part of “the government lies” don’t you get?
There are parts of government that don’t lie. Yes, it’s true. I’d tell you which parts those are, but right now my mind is drawing a blank. But, I know better than to made “the government lies” as an absolute. You know the deal, the only absolute truth is – there are no absolutes.
Getting back to the main theme here, we all need to understand why Congress doesn’t work. It’s sort of simple, really. I’ll lay out my thoughts on why Congress is as dysfunctional as it is. Then, I’ll give you a couple of strategies to use to influence your own representatives. Then I’ll finish up by giving you the odds of that happening.
Here are a few reasons why Congress doesn’t work:
Their Game, Their Rules – Congress makes up its own rules of order. Yes, they do use parliamentary rules as the basis, but they’ve embellished upon all them to the point that it’s safe to say Congress has created a self-regulating body of rules that ensures the only person elected to office who actually works is the one who rarely sleeps and rarely goes home. When you study what even they call “making the sausage” it’s easy to get lost. There are so many twists and turns in the process of shepherding a bill from inception to passage that the lawmakers need someone to hold their hands at all times, lest they take a wrong turn. It’s just too complicated, but it’s complicated for a purpose. I’ll get to that later. Right now, understand this single point – Congress runs the way it does because generations of legislators have systematically rigged their game to be that way. If most of them really wanted to work, then that would be the expectation implicit in their rules, but they don’t, so the rules abet them in avoiding such a dumb thing.
That’s Not Their Real Job – Just what is the real job of a member of Congress? We think of it in terms of “making our laws,” which they most certainly seem to do. They give that appearance, all right. They break them, too. With abandon, I might add. But, what they are really doing is not the “making.” No, our people in Congress do not make the laws. They do vote, which often will turn a bill into a law, but there are often years of effort that go into making that law that the elected member has played no part in at all. Their jobs? They buy, they sell, and they trade. They’re a lot like commodity brokers, with laws as their goods. When a member decides to get behind an idea and wants it turned into a law they know they need support. Many times they “buy” that support. There are all kinds of ways to do that, including having “interested parties” make deposits in bank accounts. They’ll all tell you it doesn’t happen, but … really. We should all know of incidents where politicians have taken bribes. They all want us to think that’s a rare occurrence, but things like that are a lot like roaches – for every one you see there are over one hundred in hiding nearby. So, assuming I’m right, and legislators don’t actually do much beyond sell legislation and do the voting, who is it that’s responsible for all those bills? It depends. Some are completely drafted by lobbyists, and some are a combination of lobbyist work with Congressional staffers helping. Once in a while a piece of legislation is totally constructed by staffers. Once in a while. As for the incumbent member – it’s been many decades since one of them wrote legislation. That’s not their job. If you think so, I’ll give you the response you’ll get if you have this conversation with a member of Congress – You just don’t understand.
Staffers Are The Key – There are essentially five kinds of staffers in Congress, with sub-variants. There are the members’ staffs, and then there are committee staffs. When you count all the staffers who work for the Speaker and Senate Majority Leader to do all the regimental chores necessary to make the place work, that makes three. There are two other kinds, which include organizations like the Capitol Police, the emergency medical staff, the Congressional Budget Office, Capitol Building Maintenance staff, the barber, and a fairly long laundry list of others – but no one in those staff positions deals directly with legislation like the first three. The main staffers who get into the weeds of legislation are the members’ and committee staffs. They actually “touch” the bills. They also interact with the members, providing information, opinions, and education regarding what bills are about and what they actually say. The staffers are the ones most likely to read bills, or at least parts of bills, and they are the ones who help the members formulate their opinions and positions. The staffers are the Brain Trust of Congress. Without them the nickname “do nothing Congress” would be used each and every day, and for good reason. Without the staffers, nothing in Congress gets done. That’s its own problem, too. I’ll discuss that later on.
The Bills Are Gynormous – There was a time, not so long ago, when a 1,000 page bill was considered a monstrosity. Not now. Today we see bills that are multiple thousands of pages long – far too long and complex for anyone to read and understand without years of effort. Why is that so? It’s so because those omnibus budget bills and things like Obamacare and the COVID Relief Bill aren’t supposed to be read, understood, or even debated. They are amended, though. Almost every bill has amendments. As long as the text of an amendment is even tangentially related to one of the subjects of the parent bill it is usually allowed to be introduced and voted on. As for that parent – what’s up? We now see giant bills introduced, then voted on one or two days later. How is that even possible? What’s the game? It’s possible because as soon as a bill is delivered the staffers take it, decompose it, spend all night studying it to the best of their ability to understand what’s there, then put together a member briefing package to tell the member what the bill is about, what’s in it that’s good, what’s in it that’s bad, and make recommendations regarding the member’s upcoming vote. The member may never crack open one of the big bills. Anything they get that’s over 100 pages won’t get read by a member unless he or she is a very lonely person with no life at all. Are you getting the picture yet?
Nothing Gets Done Until All the Horses Have Been Traded – Bills aren’t even slated for votes until all the back-room hog-wrassling is done. Deals have to be made. Alliances have to be forged. “Wants” have to be whispered, “asks” have to be communicated; the “quid” must be met with a seemingly legitimate “quo pro.” Such stuff is the real “meat” of that sausage. The bill doesn’t go to final markup until the dealing is over, so the vote count can be assessed. That’s when the Whip goes into action. The Whip is the one who goes around and buttonholes all the members to get them to declare in advance what they would do if a particular bill comes to a vote. Sometimes a popular bill is stopped dead in its tracks because one member or one faction did not get assurances their “ask” was going to be accommodated. Similarly, and unpopular bill that has a lot of constituent support may clearly be destined to die, but is slated for a vote anyway. Sometimes the best way to dispose of a DOA carcass (a bill with too little member support that is causing problems back home) is to throw it out, let it be advertised, and let it die. Do you think Obamacare would have been brought to the floor if it wasn’t certain to pass? Do you think the bill to kill Obamacare during Trump’s first term would have died in the Senate if Senator McCain had gotten whatever it was he asked for? That’s politics, baby!
Everyone Loves Their Jobs – It’s just true. Everyone on Capitol Hill loves being at the nexus of power. It’s an ego trip, and a soul-changing experience. Everything there is “special.” Everyone is one kind of special or another, no matter what their positions are. This is in keeping with my theory that large organizations are living things. They develop a will to live that’s so strong people will do almost anything to continue on in their capacities. Everyone who works in or for Congress is the same – they would fight tigers to keep their jobs. Anything they see that they perceive as a threat becomes fodder for intrigues. Members aren’t really part of that game, since their fate is somewhat determined by the people back home. But, everyone else there strives for continuity. They have a gravy train and want to ride it until they leave of their own volition. Some members understand that dynamic, while most probably are so ego-involved they pay no attention. Staffers don’t actually want members to think along those lines. If they can keep the members focused somewhere else they have a better chance of influencing them.
Congress Is a Nest of Spies – That statement may shock you a bit, but it’s true. We’ve heard Presidents from many administrations complain about “leaks” to the press. It seems there are almost no real secrets in Washington. Everything is fair game. Congress is no exception. It’s a sieve. Every single day some secret about something or someone is leaked out from that building. It all has to do with peer-group identification. Most of the leaks come from staffers. A member may have only two or three staff members from “back home.” The rest are usually made up of professional staffers. The percentages vary, depending somewhat on how long a member has served. The “new kids” who make up freshman classes usually are advised in orientation to find staffers who have worked for multiple previous members. They’re told they need people in their offices who know all the rules that are involved in getting things done. It saves time and effort instead of wasting time learning all the arcane ins-and-outs of the place. Whenever a member either retires or is voted out, most of their office staff is left behind. The ones from back home often go home, but those “professional” staffers who are addicted to the place remain behind, hoping to get picked up by one of the “new kids.” What no one talks about and most members are slow to pick up on is the internal communications network of those professional staffers. Some have been around the building for a significant amount of time. Yes, they generally do know how to make things move, but their true loyalties often lie with a group of fellow staffers who have been around about the same length of time they have. Their peer group is other professional staffers. They party together, go to lunch together, and gather after work in the bars of Georgetown to knock back a couple of drinks and chit-chat about what they see and hear in the course of their day. Many of those same staffers have “friends” in the media. Tell me … what could go wrong with a system like that? The truth of secrecy in Congress is age-old. The only secret that won’t get out is the one never told.
What Is a Member’s Main Job? – That sounds like a simple question, but there is more than one right answer. A constituent thinks their Senator or Congressman is there to help them; to represent their point of view. Taken to a higher level, members are expected by their communities to represent the needs and values of that aggregate constituency. Corporations know laws affect them on a regular basis. Their opinion is everyone in Congress is either a friend or an enemy. Lobbyists shill for corporate and other interests and ply members on a continuous basis – always working them to ensure their paid-for point of view is firmly planted in enough minds to give them a shot at getting favorable legislation. A Senator is expected to represent the interests of his/her state. The Speaker and the Majority Leader have their own ideas. Some of the more senior members may have other ideas as well. The party, whether Democratic or Republican, will have its ideas. Most of a member’s time is taken up catering to that whole mish-mash of interests and there’s almost no time to dedicate to “the sausage.” That’s the job of the various staffs. The member just has to figure out which vote serves the interests he/she determines to represent. Some days it ain’t easy! Some members in Congress have a very difficult time making up their minds on any bill just because of competing interests. Other members make that process much easier. The ones I like the best are the ones who have very strict and rigid principles that guide them. There aren’t that many of those, unfortunately. The rest … I’d rather not get into their motivations or how they make their decisions. I would expect at least 100 variations on that theme. I’m a simple person, and I like it that some members adopt simple principles in executing their responsibilities. Those few know exactly what their main job is in every case. I’m thinking they sleep very well at night, too. Of course, there are those whose principles are anathema to me, like those Marxists and socialists in Congress. I admit, I do favor those whose principles align with the Constitution and the views of our Founding Fathers.
It’s Almost All About the Money – Members of Congress have one priority above all others – to ensure they can get re-elected. To do that, they have to fund-raise and they have to spend a lot of time with all the huge variety of constituents who help determine their fate in the next election. They also have to ensure they can keep attack-dog lobbyists away from their doors, while not appearing to be overly in the pocket of lobbyists who seem more friendly. Their Party wants something from them, too. If they want a “power position” in Congress they can get it, but they have to sign up to raise specified amounts of money for the party. You should know that the “gate” from every fundraiser is split in at least two parts and sometimes more. Part usually goes to the member’s “war chest” to fund the next campaign. Part almost always goes to the member’s national party. Part may go to local party organizations – the ones sponsoring the event. Part may even be given away to help another candidate in their race. All that money-raising requires a lot of time and energy. Some in Congress spend a significant percentage of their time on the phone and eating rubber chicken in order to keep the money flowing. When you think about it, there’s a great analogy there – to one extent or another members of Congress become prostitutes, working the streets and banquet halls for any number of pimps. Of course, the rewards are there, so they just shill, shill, and shill again. Money – that’s the life-blood of Congress and every one of its members.
You should want to know what you can do to make a difference, given the nightmarish scenario I just painted. You should want to know how to become influential and how to prod your own representative into action. There is a simple way to describe what you need to do – PUT FEAR IN THEIR HEARTS! That sounds kind of extreme, doesn’t it? Why would anyone want to make a member of Congress afraid of them? Because, like all powerful people, fear and money are the only two things they respond to. They can’t be lectured to. They can’t be educated. They can’t be cajoled. They can’t be shamed. None of those things work with politicians at almost any level. They respond to only those two things – fear and money. Now, let’s face it, unless you’re a billionaire you don’t have enough money to sway many politicians. But, making them fear you is only a matter of getting an understanding of what they fear, then feeding that fear in a purposeful way. Here are just a few thoughts about what most politicians fear; things you can make work for you:
They fear losing! – All incumbents fear losing. None of them went to all the trouble to win office with the thought of just giving up. They’ll fight to stay where they are. If a politician casts a wrong vote or you catch them lying to you in a provable way, let them know they’ll not only lose your vote, but every vote you can possibly sway. They hate bad press! – Tell them you’ll go out in middle of the busiest downtown streets and carry signs that display your negative view of them. Tell them you’ll be writing letters to every editor of every single newspaper in your district or state. They hate being pressured! – Tell them you’ll call their office and fill up their answering machine every day until they vote the right way. Tell them you’ll send letters to all your neighbors, telling them all how their representative betrays their interests. Tell them you’ll be posting memes on social media to air your gripes in the most public ways you can. Tell them you’re going to join an interest group that’s one of their enemies and help them raise funds for anyone willing to run against them. Tell them you’ll campaign for anyone willing to run against them and will knock on doors in your area to tell everyone who will listen what your opinion of them is. They hate being embarrassed! – Tell them you’re going to create a “Political Hack of the Month Award” and announce it on the radio, then make them the first awardee. If you already know of such an “award,” tell them they’re about to be nominated and you’ll make sure they “win.” Make them see you as a potential threat. Make them want to run away whenever they see you. Once they get to that point, just keep hammering them with the behavior you expect – tell them what you want to see them do; the thing that will make you cease and desist. First, instill the fear. Then, offer them a way out – a path to peace.
Now, it’s up to you. If you understand the mechanisms that can induce fear, it’s up to you to follow through. Keep in mind the line between ardent issue advocacy and harassment isn’t always clear-cut. You’re usually on safe ground when you stick to the core subject and not make it personal. Your intent isn’t to harm anyone, but to compel your representative to understand they’ve strayed from their pledges to their constituents, and you’re simply not going to put up with it. Be a battering ram. Keep battering until they give way and sue for peace. Then, simply tell them what you believe their correct path is for the future and to stick on that path if they don’t want to see or hear from you again. As I said before – it’s up to you. It’s also up me, and to everyone who cares. WE are the ones who can make a difference, but we won’t make any difference at all if we don’t do what it takes to ensure our representatives do what they’re supposed to.
Yes, there sometimes is another way to influence a representative other than fear. There are some who are willing to be educated on issues. To find out if yours is, call up their local office and ask for half-hour to give your representative a Power Point presentation regarding an issue you want resolved. Be professional. Make sure your pitch is polished. Make sure your entire presentation is logical, appropriately comprehensive, and emphasizes the right considerations you believe are important. If you have a representative who’s willing to listen and learn, then you may not need to use fear to control them. But, beware that many (maybe most) politicians are liars to one extent or another (they resent that accusation and have all kinds of rationalizations for why they aren’t liars, but – really – they just are). Just because they seem receptive to an informational pitch doesn’t mean you’ve closed the deal. It may only mean they’re schmoozing you because they don’t want to create an enemy in you. It’s not what they say that’s important. It’s never what they say – it’s how they vote. If you try the peaceful approach and see it didn’t take, then, by all means, turn on the heat.
Allow me now to play odds maker. What are the chances that any of us, either singly or in combination, can make any difference in the direction of this nation. At best those odds are less than 1.5 in 435. But, that’s for each of us, individually. If more and more people would learn how to effectively influence their representative those odds improve. It’s a lot better odds than playing the PowerBall Lottery!
Now, go forth and slay dragons. We have a nation to save, and precious little time to do it.
Steve© Steve A. Stone
The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.