What Does a Good Congressman Look Like?

Ross Douthat’s latest column eloquently explains the problem with a government that only serves those capable of working within the system:

Whence comes this wealth? Mostly from Washington’s one major industry: the federal government. Not from direct federal employment, which has risen only modestly of late, but from the growing armies of lobbyists and lawyers, contractors and consultants, who make their living advising and influencing and facilitating the public sector’s work…

The state of life inside the Beltway also points to the broader story of our spending problem, which has less to do with how much we spend on the poor than how much we lavish on subsidies for highly inefficient economic sectors, from health care to higher education, and on entitlements for people who aren’t supposed to need a safety net — affluent retirees, well-heeled homeowners, agribusiness owners, and so on…

In reality, our government isn’t running trillion-dollar deficits because we’re letting the working class get away with not paying its fair share. We’re running those deficits because too many powerful interest groups have a stake in making sure the party doesn’t stop.

Another way to think about the problem is to imagine the ideal workday of an elected representative. Ideally, they talk to constituents about what’s making life more difficult than it needs to be. Many of the complaints will be asinine, but some will be legitimate, and some of the legitimate complaints can be remedied without doing other harm. The representative would then create legislation to enact those fixes.

In theory, this is still how Congress functions, but instead of solving the problems of normal constituents, legislators are solving the problems of whatever registered lobbyist gets to talk to them for three minutes in the drink line at an exclusive D.C. event. This is what people mean when they talk about lobbyists buying access rather than influence.

It’s hard to say whether the government industry Douthat writes about is a bigger institutional problem than the zero-sum game that’s arisen between the two parties. The latter is keeping big legislation from being passed, but the former tends to make legislation worse once the big pieces are settled — instead of fixing issues that could inconvenience families, the “industry” ensures government effort is put into fixing issues that could inconvenience businesses or interest groups.


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