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Review: A Better Congress by Joseph Gibson

Joseph Gibson, author of A Better Congress: Change the Rules, Change the Results: A Modest Proposal – Citizen’s Guide to Legislative Reform, begins his book with the assertion that Congress does not work well and that the incentives that drive the members of Congress are the problem. Very few people would likely disagree with that broad assertion, however, the causes of the problems and solutions to the problems are steeped in rhetoric. In A Better Congress Gibson lays out his views on the failings of Congress in Part I and his proposed solutions in Part II.

In order to better communicate the problems of Congress Gibson constructs a fictional Congressman named Rick Johnson and uses him as a model while illustrating the following reasons why Congress does not work well:

  • The enormous advantages of incumbency discourage competition among candidates
  • The tremendous ordeals of a campaign narrow the pool of candidates
  • The skills to win a campaign do not correlate with governing
  • The Congressional bubble divides the representative from his constituency
  • The minority party has little to no incentive to govern
  • The drive for reelection is all encompassing
  • The bias towards passing laws regardless of their need or effectiveness
  • The counterproductive overreaction to crisis and the inability to address entitlement reform

It becomes clear that the real underlying issue to all of the above is the drive for reelection. The incentives in the current system are to first retain power and then, perhaps, govern wisely. Yet it is clear that getting reelected and governing wisely are almost always in direct conflict. Gibson illustrates this clearly in the chapter about the minority party and their ineffectiveness. This is not an issue solely confined to Congress either; Scott McClellan referred to the permanent campaign and its effect on the Bush Administration in his book What Happened. Gibson addresses solutions to this problem in Part II but really the highlight of the book is in Part I where Gibson adeptly illustrates the problems of Congress through the use of his fictional Congressman.

Part II addresses solutions to the above problems and breaks it down as solutions for both houses and house specific. Gibson emphasizes in Part I that the system is complex and there is a lot of incentive driven behavior, but not in the way that was probably imagined by the creators of our Constitution. A lot of our past modifications, additions, and fixes to the structure of government have created this enormous growing blob of unintended consequences. Solutions, even with the best of intentions, rarely work out in ideal fashion and unfortunately it’s hard to predict how they’ll affect the system without them being implemented. So, for example, Gibson advocates changing campaign finance laws which were originally instituted as a fix to political corruption but have morphed, in Gibson’s view, into a system that gives incumbents enormous advantages. However, any drastic change to the campaign finance laws, like Gibson’s proposal of the lifting of any cap and mandating transparency, will almost without a doubt not work out as idealized and could possibly be more disastrous than the current system. Without a careful examination of these proposals, it’s difficult to really see the validity of them other than as conversation starters into the solutions.

It is not that Gibson’s proposals don’t have merit or that attempts to fix Congress should not be attempted because of unintended consequences, instead Part II just does not give a serious enough look at each solution and explore how it might play out. Also, some of the solutions are matter of ideological beliefs and not pragmatism. The solution to minimize the number of House members is based on how you view the function of democracy and government and how responsive they should be to their constituency; it is not a simple technical fix like say changing committee rules.

Gibson clearly states that this work is intended to provoke debate about why Congress doesn’t work well and to stoke the discussion on how to fix it. On that measure Gibson succeeds, even the most passive of readers will find the contents and proposals stimulating. Yet, it’s questionable whether the solutions set forth have any real practical merit. This book probably won’t appeal to the hardcore political junkie as its focus is quite broad and solutions very sweeping. The book’s real strength is in bringing to light how the Congress functions, or doesn’t, and what the problems are that prevent it from working in a more ideal way. This book is perfect for the average citizen who is frustrated by the inefficacy of Congress but may not quite understand why. Gibson’s plain English style and brief chapters make the Herculean task of fixing a dysfunctional Congress seem like an approachable subject and his book should appeal to a large swath of readers.

** Review Copy provided by the publisher.