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Posted at 4:41 PM ET, 02/16/2011

How do legislators learn?

By Ezra Klein

Referring to some comments made by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) about the budget deficit, Jon Bernstein wonders about the job "the Democratic Party policy network" is doing educating its elected officials on the basic facts of public policy. This is a question that interests me on both sides of the aisle, and I've never gotten what I consider a definitive answer on it. But it gives me an opportunity to note that Rep. Jim Cooper, who's among the most informed members of Congress, thinks (PDF) it has deteriorated sharply while he's been in office:

When Cambridge’s own Tip O’Neill was Speaker just over twenty years ago ... members could know exactly what they were voting on because an elite group of staffers called the Democratic Study Group wrote authoritative pro-con memos before every important vote. Dozens of Republicans subscribed to the Democratic Study Group because they trusted its work. ...

Congress has deteriorated since the O’Neill era. When Newt Gingrich became Speaker in 1995, he centralized power in the Speaker’s office and politicized its function. ... Objective information sources like the Democratic Study Group were literally banned. Members were told by their leadership how to vote and were force-fed talking points so that everyone could stay on message. Gingrich reportedly said that the first step in a revolution is to shut down the television stations.

If anyone is well-versed in this history, I'd be interested to hear it. The one thing I'd add is that there's clearly less need for something like the Democratic Study Group today. The rise of the Internet has led to an incredible wealth of accessible policy information from credible sources. The work of groups such as the DSG -- which was more to aggregate policy research than conduct it -- is less necessary than it once was. But it's possible that there was an informal social pressure to have been familiar with what the DSG was writing in the '80s, while now we're leaving it up to the initiative and interest of individual legislators, with less-than-stellar results.

Update: Norm Ornstein, who's forgotten more about Congress than I'll ever know, writes in:

The Democratic Study Group was an activist organization; I worked with it in the '70s on the reforms that opened up the House. But its core function was to provide information at a time when the committee chairs and leaders held their control over information very close. They did reports that gave objective pros and cons about bills and amendments that members on both sides found invaluable. Newt deliberately took them, and other caucuses, etc, out, by barring their ability to use staffers from members on a shared or part time basis. DSG would still serve a terrific function, even in the information age, if it were around today, because it framed information specifically around pending votes, in a timely fashion, and in language and terms that worked for legislators.

By Ezra Klein  | February 16, 2011; 4:41 PM ET
Categories:  Congress  
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Next: Is John Boehner doing a good job as speaker?


What about CRS?

Posted by: ideallydc | February 16, 2011 5:07 PM | Report abuse

I call B.S. on Sen. Coons.
Any good lobbyist will fairly present both sides of an issue to a legislator. And as Ezra points out, it's a lot easier to research an issue today than it was 20 years ago.
Instead look at the growth in partisanship and the imposition of party discipline. It has made horse-trading for votes more difficult. That creates less incentive to study issues objectively - why learn about what you can't possibly support?

Posted by: RZ100 | February 16, 2011 5:14 PM | Report abuse

"Any good lobbyist will fairly present both sides of an issue to a legislator."

If I had a lobbyist working for me who did this, I'd fire him. They would cease to be a lobbyist at that point.

Posted by: davis_x_machina | February 16, 2011 5:43 PM | Report abuse

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