The knowledge culture of Congress

Image Source: LOC

Image Source: LOC

By Colleen J. Shogan

The swirl of commentary and serious thought about “fake news” and “the death of expertise” begs a larger question about American political culture and its penchant for anti-intellectualism. Over fifty years ago, Richard Hofstadter wrote his Pulitzer prize-winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, and the recent election has encouraged its reconsideration.

Understanding how pervasive, cyclical strains of political culture, such as anti-intellectualism, affect the function of political institutions is critically valuable, especially during times of upheaval and change. So what about the knowledge culture of Congress?  Has the war on expertise found its way to Capitol Hill?

To fulfill many requirements of the job, Members of Congress and staff need access to facts, statistics, and digestible explanations describing complex empirical relationships and governmental processes. In my experience, more congressional time is spent on technical, procedural, administrative, and representative issues than purely partisan concerns. This type of work cannot be ignored. Constituents write emails asking tough questions; staff must consult research before writing legislative outlines; and press secretaries have to “get smart” on issues in short order.

While Congress is a representative body and not immune to the political culture that surrounds it, Nelson Polsby reminds us that political institutions are constrained, well-bounded and influenced by norms, requirements, expectations, and rules. Culture matters, but internal dynamics create powerful structural incentives for various behaviors, as my former colleague explained recently.

Headlines about Congress, exacerbated by social media, are biased toward the predominance of ideological conflict on the Hill. There’s no denying its existence and influence. But there’s also another story to tell, perhaps a narrative that won’t drive Twitter traffic. Considerable resources in a Member office are devoted daily to the sometimes arcane, complex, knowledge-driven work required by both the representative and policymaking functions.  For example, understanding how the Army Corps works isn’t partisan, but it does require accurate information and expertise that can elucidate intricate processes and bureaucratic functions.

There is an expectation within the institution that Members of Congress and their staffs engage in this type of knowledge-seeking behavior. Variations within both chambers certainly exist, but no elected representative wants to “get it wrong.” That’s why facilitating access to authoritative information, analysis, and expertise on Capitol Hill is imperative. Furthermore, an external demand also exists. Constituents seek answers and explanations, and a nationally informed legislature exists, in part, to fulfill such requests.

Congress is not an anti-knowledge institution. Members don’t need lectures or lengthy missives because their scarcest resource, by far, is time. Instead, they want practical, meaningful, interactive discussions that enable them to perform their jobs as elected representatives of large, often diverse constituencies. In our current political climate, it may make sense for politicians to perpetuate the “death of expertise” cultural mantra. But some of us know better, and take quiet solace in the fact that the pursuit of knowledge is far from moribund on Capitol Hill.  

Colleen J. Shogan (@cshogan276) is a political scientist at the Library of Congress. She writes both fiction and non-fiction books about American politics and teaches a graduate seminar on American Political Development at Georgetown. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Library of Congress.