Now, a Harvard University professor has analyzed this tribe’s behavior, using computers to look for trends in members’ writings. And he’s learned something that might help explain why Congress is having such trouble working out a deal this week.
He learned, to his amazement, that modern members of Congress spend about 27 percent of the time just taunting each other.
“It’s jarring and surprising,” said Prof. Gary King, an expert in using computers to find patterns in large amounts of data. And, King said, probably counterproductive if we want Congress’s members to trust one another enough to make deals.
“The entire government may go bankrupt, I guess. This week, right?” King said in a telephone interview. “We probably want our representatives to be listening to each other rather than calling each other names.”
To come up with this insight, King and two graduate students analyzed 64,033 press releases sent out by all U.S. senators from 2005 to 2007. They used a computer program to sort them into different categories, based on their content.
Three of their categories were well known to political scientists. Over the years, they have come up with a Grand Unified Theory of Congressmen, which holds that there are three primary ways a legislator expresses him- or herself.
The first is credit-claiming. That involves a legislator trumpeting his own role in securing a bridge or a dam or some other thing voters want. “ ‘The government did this thing. It’s because of me,’ ” King explained.
The second is position-taking. This is the thing that “Schoolhouse Rock” and civics classes teach you is the point of congressional speechifying. “ ‘I’m at this point on the ideological continuum,’ ” King said.
The third traditional category is “advertising.” It might be recognizing some hometown team or dignitary, a nonpartisan effort to get one’s name out there. “ ‘Look at me! I’m a member of Congress!’ ” King said.
But, he said, some news releases he and his team studied didn’t fit neatly into the three traditional categories.
“They’re a different thing. To say that the only thing members of Congress do is advertising, credit-claiming or position-taking, that’s not right,” King said. “Because sometimes, they just stand up there and taunt the other side.”
Now, it’s not earth-shaking news that legislators like to insult each other. But what King did is quantify how much they do it: more than a quarter of the time. He found taunting was most common in members whose districts were “safe” — strongly held by their party.