It may be helpful, at a time like this — when Congress is threatening to shut down the U.S. government in a dispute over a tiny fraction of the federal budget — to think of legislators like a lost forest tribe.
They have their own puzzling beliefs (in mid-afternoon, senators often announce they have shifted to “morning business”). They have their own language (on Capitol Hill, “chimps” are funding cuts and not primates). And they live in isolation, working in a sealed mini-realm with its own food, its own police, its own subway service.
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.
A Washington Post reporter sent King and his students a sampling of 48 recent news releases, a week’s worth, from three top congressional Democrats and three top Republicans.
Of those, King’s folks said, 20 percent were mainly about taunting the other side. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) sent one out on proposed Social Security changes that said, “Republicans have shown they couldn’t care less about those who have the least.”
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) sent out one on the anniversary of the federal health-care law saying, “Democrats have not displayed the same interest in listening to the American people.”
King said this tendency to taunt seems to show Congress distracting itself from its most basic mission: to find common ground to solve national problems.
“I think most people,” he said, “would say that this is not a good thing.”
Not all people. David Mayhew, a Yale University professor who came up with the original three-part theory of congressional communication, said what looks like taunting might serve a purpose.
For one thing, he said, the fireworks might keep people interested.
“You’ve got to have an opposition that taunts and a government that taunts back” to highlight their differences on key issues, Mayhew said. “For the public, it’s sort of like watching a tennis match. . . . I think it’s productive in that sense.”
Whether it’s useful or not, the tribe shows no signs of giving up the tradition. On Wednesday morning, the Senate had been in session only a few minutes before the first exchange of barbed words.
“Democrats are more concerned about the politics of the debate than keeping the government running,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a floor speech. “They can’t blame anyone but themselves if a shutdown does occur.”
A while later, Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) came out to speak. He had a few choice things to say about Republicans’ plans for cuts to the federal budget.
“The more the American people take a hard look at where [Republicans] want this country to go, the more outraged will be millions and millions of citizens,” Sanders said.
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