Yesterday, The Atlantic’s James Fallows posted a message he received from a former congressional staffer responding to a blistering essay on the state of Congress as an institution and the GOP’s seemingly intentional role in undermining confidence in it, which was written by former Republican congressional staffer Mike Lofgren. Fallows’s correspondent, who found him or her-self “agreeing with virtually everything in Mike’s article,” argued that at least since the 1990s, members of Congress have lost respect for the institution of Congress:
Privately, many of us who have worked in Congress since before the Clinton Administration have been complaining about the loss of the respect for the institution by the Members who were elected to serve their constituents through the institution. I don’t think people realize how fragile democracy really is. The 2012 campaign is currently looking to be the final nail in the coffin unless people start to understand what is going on.
Matt Yglesias linked to Fallows’s post in his breakfast links round up today, highlighting the sentence I have bolded above. I’m not so sure that lack of respect for the institution of Congress by those who serve in it is such a new idea.
Over the weekend, as part of the assigned reading for my Legislative Politics class, I read Richard Fenno’s classic 1977 American Political Science Review article (PDF) on U.S. House Members in their Constituencies, in which he introduced his idea of “home style” regarding how members of Congress present themselves to their constituencies. Fenno’s research consisted of traveling with 17 House members in their districts and observing their interactions with their constituents. Towards the end of the paper, he mentions how he was surprised to find that each one of the House members he observed polished their “individual reputation at the expense of the institutional reputation of the Congress”:
I should not have been surprised, therefore, when I heard every one of my seventeen members introduced at home as “the best congressman in the United States.” But I was not prepared to find each of them polishing this individual reputation at the expense of the institutional reputation of the Congress. … Individual members do not take responsibility for the performance of Congress; rather each portrays himself as a fighter against its manifest shortcomings. Their willingness, at some point, to stand and defend their votes contrasts sharply with their disposition to run and hide when a defense of Congress is called for. Congress is not “we”; it is “they.” And members of Congress run for Congress by running against Congress. Thus, individual explanations carry with them a heavy dosage of critical commentary on Congress.
In the part under the ellipsis, Fenno quotes some of the members of Congress making comments that would shock no one to hear uttered today: “the tools of organized labor,” “the tools of big business,” “the ineffective leadership,” and “the obstructionist minority.” I’m not saying that everything is the same as it always was. The institution of Congress is different today than it was in the time of Fenno’s writing. Norms have continued to break down as Constitutional Hardball has seemingly increased over the years. But the idea that members once revered Congress but now denigrate it is wrong. For a long time it’s been considered a good electoral strategy, at least in the eyes of members of Congress themselves, to raise one’s self up by pushing the institution down.
It may be true, however, that it is new for a political party rather than individual congressmen to pursue that strategy. But I’m not certain that’s what is going on. At least, I’m not sure that the Republican committee staff director cited by Lofgren as saying that “sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government” so that “the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner” is sufficient proof that this is the actual strategy being consciously pursued by a majority of Republicans. It could be, but I think there are other possible explanations for the GOP’s destructive behavior.