I’ve written some mean things about Indiana Gov. Mike Pence over the years, and now that he’s in the national spotlight as the Republican vice presidential candidate, the time has come to tell the truth: I owe him an apology.
I spent years slagging Pence as stupid and moronic simply because he was a leading member of Congress participating in a major debate over a public policy issue that he didn’t understand at all. At the time, it struck me as genuinely shocking. And I responded in the way that a shocked person responds — emotionally, and with some overstatement.
Today, more than a decade removed from the first time I met Pence, I can say that it’s actually quite common for members of Congress to have no idea what they’re talking about.
There’s a real problem here, but it doesn’t relate to Pence personally. And it doesn’t particularly even relate to individual members of Congress personally. It’s a deep institutional problem that is both a cause and an effect of Americans’ entrenched cynicism about Congress, politics, and governing elites.
Mike Pence and the Social Security debate of 2005
I came to Washington to work at the American Prospect in the fall of 2003. I was still working there in the winter of 2004-’05 when the hot issue in Washington became George W. Bush’s proposal to partially privatize Social Security. I hadn’t covered congressional debates much before then, and the members I’d interacted with had mostly been Democrats with whom I had a lot in common ideologically, which made it easy to take a generous view of what they were saying.
At this time, the Bush administration was coalescing around the idea of allowing workers to divert some payroll tax money out of the Social Security trust fund and into private investment accounts.
Pence was, at the time, the head of the Republican Study Committee, which was an influential right-wing factional group inside the GOP caucus that sometimes rebelled from the right against Bush’s gestures at domestic policy moderation. So when I had the chance to hear Pence speak about Social Security privatization at a small think tank event, I was eager to see what he had to say. And what he said surprised me.
Mike Pence didn’t understand moral hazard
At the time, one of the big liberal objections to privatization was that private accounts were far riskier than conventional Social Security — and retirees could be left in the lurch if their investments went south.
In his talk, Pence had a strange answer to this: He argued that the average rate of return on investments in the stock market would be so much larger than the average Social Security benefit that it would be simple for the government to guarantee nobody would end up with less money in the new private system than they would have been entitled to under the old system. After all, most people would do so much better under the new system that the government would only need to pay up to make the guarantee work for a small number of people.
I raised what I thought was an obvious objection to this: moral hazard. If you promise people they’ll get a bailout if their private investments go south, you encourage excessive risk taking and bigger losses in the future.
My expectation was that Pence would have some kind of answer to this: a technical solution or a plan for a regulatory fix or a promise to think about it harder or something. But he had nothing. He seemed to just not understand at all what the problem was. The idea that a government guarantee could change behavior appeared to be totally unfamiliar to him, even though in most cases it’s a bedrock of conservative economic policy thinking.
Congress is terrible at policy — and there are structural reasons for that
In the decade after this encounter, I’ve had the opportunity to learn that the policy ignorance on Pence’s part that shocked me is actually rather typical.
What now surprises me is when I come across a member of Congress who really does understand a particular issue in detail. And this sometimes does happen. Little pockets of expertise are scattered hither and yon all throughout Capitol Hill — especially when members dig in to work on idiosyncratic pieces of legislation that are off the radar of big-time partisan conflict. But on most issues, most of the time, most members of Congress are more or less blindly following talking points that they got from somewhere else and that they don’t really understand.
Members form identities as a certain kind of politician — a New Democrat or a progressive, a leadership ally or a rock-ribbed true conservative — and then they take cues from how a politician like that ought to respond to the controversy of the day, and their staff hastily assembles some stuff to say about it.
And the problem here isn’t that the members are dumb, as I used to think. It’s that Congress hasn’t set itself up for individual members to be well-informed. Staff budgets are generally low, and a decent share of staff effort has to be put into constituent service and answering the mail. Senators, who have larger staffs, are generally competent to discuss a wider range of issues. And committee staffs have more policy expertise, so committee chairs and ranking members are often fairly knowledgeable about the subjects under their jurisdiction.
But typical members have little chance to build in-house knowledge on policy issues, and as matter of economic necessity skilled staffers have to be looking for their next job. Nor do the members themselves exactly have a ton of time to delve into issues and talk to policy experts. They’re expected to commute back and forth to their home districts, show up routinely at community events, and spend vast amounts of time raising money in small increments.
A consequence of this is that members become dependent on interest groups not just for money but for actual knowledge and information. The typical member of Congress, faced with some arbitrary policy issue, has neither the personal nor the staff capacity to actually research the issue and come up with a fair-minded and independent judgment about the merits of the issue.
This tends to leave Congress members dangerously dependent on lobbyists (or at times pure hucksters) for analysis, which fuels public contempt of Congress, which makes it all the more unthinkable for Congress to try to vote itself the extra money for staff and expertise building that could fix the problem.
The average member of Congress has little incentive to learn about policy
Last but by no means least, individual members face relatively little incentive to really understand policy matters. Presidents (like governors, mayors, and other executive branch officials) are sort of broadly accountable for results and know that if they loudly champion something that turns out to be a disaster, they will face political blowback as a result.
Legislators, by contrast, have a lot of opportunity to engage in cheap talk. You can say you’re for all kinds of blue sky ideas — a $15-an-hour minimum wage, eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency and the IRS, a moratorium on deportations, deporting everyone, banning fracking, drilling everywhere — secure in the knowledge that it’s not going to happen so it doesn’t really matter what the implementation details or specific consequences are. If it’s the kind of thing that fits the image you’re trying to project, that’s a good enough reason to come out in favor of it.
Congressional leaders are particularly uninformed
What really got me about Pence was that he wasn’t just a random backbencher. He was a significant factional leader — someone whom the more conservative House members were supposed to look to as a valued senior colleague.
What I now understand is that all the factors that push individual members of Congress toward ignorance push would-be congressional leaders even further in this direction. To become a congressional leader means, first and foremost, that you need to be really good at raising money. That’s a difficult and time-consuming task, and one for which detailed policy knowledge isn’t especially helpful.
The ultimate result is legitimately bad. Congress is the most important policymaking institution in the American constitutional system. But individual members of Congress are not knowledgeable about policy and are not equipped to become knowledgeable, and becoming knowledgeable is not a good way to shift into a leadership position.
Pence may well have been dumber or more ignorant than your average member of Congress, but most fundamentally he was an integral part of a larger institutional framework that cultivates and promotes ignorance. That system, more than anything about Pence himself, is what’s really scary.