How Groups Like the NRA Captured Congress—and How to Take It Back

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Lawmakers aren't corrupt, they just never hear from ordinary citizens. But new technology makes it possible to overcome the power of special interests.

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Why are the House and Senate so dysfunctional? It's easy to round up the usual suspects -- lobbyists, cash, and partisan extremists. But Congress is less corrupt and venal than it is incapacitated and obsolete. 

The problem is that it cannot think for itself.

Our legislature is unable to cope with the demands of the 21st century because members are working with 60 to 80 percent of 1979 levels of policy staff -- even as their offices are receiving 800 percent more correspondence from outside than in 2000, thanks to modern communications (read: the Internet). The same technologies that have revolutionized the way politicians campaign are undermining their ability to govern once they win.

And because Congress has no systematic way to sort sensation and sentiment from substance, governing is starting to look more like campaigning. It makes sense, then, that the organizations with the easiest-to-understand talking points and the best ground games either dominate the policy discourse or shut it down altogether. The groups that do both effectively end up functioning as surrogate staff for members of Congress.

Nothing better illustrates the ability of a lobby to commandeer the policy process than the NRA's role in the gun-violence debate. There are 535 representatives and senators in Congress, and not one wants to see another Sandy Hook. The tragedy in Newtown is just one in a succession of mass murders in the past few years. But none has provoked a lasting conversation -- or substantive policy changes -- on the country's gun laws. How does this happen?

The NRA and groups like it dominate our legislative branch because to a representative, taking their view seems to be responding to constituents' desires, the most routine congressional task. During the last election cycle, the NRA sent reps to live in congressional districts, and they got to know folks at the shooting ranges, in backyard BBQs, at gun shops, and in church. The NRA knows that their success will depend on more of this local, long-term, single-minded, and sustained presence. "There is no such thing as an off year anymore," says Glen Caroline, director of the NRA's Grassroots division. "We are in a perpetual grassroots mode."

The groups that have easy-to-understand talking points and good ground games end up functioning as surrogate staff for members of Congress.

The NRA provides its own data, talking points, and policy context -- offering something that congressional offices can't generate on their own and that the gun-control lobby doesn't have the resources to provide, either. At the same time, it has hobbled the ability to get competing information -- like federal and state data -- by successfully pushing legislation that prevents access. For years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have not been allowed to research gun violence. The criminal-justice system's records of guns used in crime are likewise compromised by congressional action. A restriction known as the Tiahrt Amendment blocks law-enforcement access to tools like gun traces, gun-purchaser information, and aggregate gun data. The amendment also rids gun dealers of requirements to report inventory data on missing guns. The NRA even has lobbyists at the United Nations who scuttle attempts at transparency on global weapons transfers.

Over the past few decades, the NRA's great achievement is congressional silence on guns. Why should a member detail staffers who already stretched too thin to pore over raw data when taking up the NRA's research and analysis fits the bill? As a result, the NRA doesn't just dominate the politics; it has captured the process of policymaking.

As my research has shown, Congress created this vacuum for permanent lobbying groups in 1995, when it eliminated its own staff and capacity for expertise and long-term thinking. The change was one part of the Contract With America, the reform manifesto pushed by Newt Gingrich. After using a simple rules change to eliminate pooled staff financing for members seeking to work together, he consolidated information-sharing and diminished member-to-member communication on issues. In its place, he built a structure that disseminated "talking points" from leadership that served his ideological cohorts. Non-conformist Republicans and all Democrats suffered a serious blow. They lost hundreds of shared staff. 

When Democrats retook the House, they kept the system in place. To this day, the legislative branch is missing deep pools of specialized expertise inside the policy process, institutional memory, and individuals who can act as custodians of knowledge sharing.

The biggest civic hole in today's Congress is that representatives are rarely held accountable to the "big picture" or the greater good, so most members don't bother. Meanwhile, narrow interest advocates are always there, coaching members and framing the debate. This means that, representatives don't consistently hear alternative points of view or diverse estimates -- neither from experts nor from a broader swath of their constituents. Members of Congress do value these groups' input, but until recently, these alternative viewpoints have been forced into a reactive posture, and have failed to reach members at the right time.

The gun lobby, in contrast, is comprised of master strategists who intimately know the legislative process. They make lots of noise when events don't go their way -- and they work their connections in between political campaigns and tragic massacres. They have great timing, personal relationships, and useful knowledge. They're present whenever Hill staff need them, and they can provide information based on each member's district. Their local focus is key to capturing the legislative process, and it has allowed gun advocates to create what you might call a policy cartel.

Internet communications paired with new transparency rules in the House solve part of the representation problem by allowing better data and more informed voices to consistently reach Congress. Yet not all information is created equal, and given today's noise overload, it is important to distinguish between information and knowledge. Members and their staff don't lack access to information. The problem is that information from vested interests and high-decibel advocates is disproportionately represented. What members lack is the institutional wisdom that can be built using a system that feeds broadly inclusive information through defined processes of review, contextualization, comparison, and evaluation. In technology jargon, this distinction is what separates crowdsourcing from curation.

On the other hand, voters back home now have access to parts of the policymaking process that used to be exclusively available to those on Capitol Hill, and this is where they can organize to build a decentralized system for curating knowledge. Congress.gov webcasts committee hearings and features calendars and texts of bills. Websites like govtrack.us create tailored notices for topical interests in legislation. Popvox.com gives an overview of district voices. You can find a directory of group dialogue methods at participationcompass.org. Sunlightfoundation.com has a toolbox for getting closer to the gears of policymaking.

Knowing what legislation already exists but is languishing is key to creating standing support for issues that usually die after being introduced -- like gun-violence prevention and international treaties. More than 12,000 bills were introduced in the last Congress, including many of the measures now in the headlines: bans on high-capacity ammunition magazines, background checks for all gun sales, and firearm-transfer restrictions. Former House Judiciary Committee staffer Carol Chodroff, an attorney and justice advocate, observes, "We need to bring together voices that are disparate but not disconnected."

It's vital to target input, too: Not all members are created equal. Take gun control again. Members of the Judiciary Committee and its subcommittees on crime and the Constitution are more important than others because they are where any legislation will be sent after it is introduced. These members are responsible for starting the gears of the institutional process, so if they don't act, nothing happens.

Consider this map of the districts of all the committee members, with the locations of major shootings in Tucson, Arizona; Oak Creek, Wisconsin; and Blacksburg, Virginia, marked:

Itir Sonuparlak

Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia)'s district is close to Virginia Tech, home of the worst school shooting in U.S. history. He's also an Internet pioneer on the Hill. At a recent technology conference he talked about the benefits of technology for representation:

We need to be getting more input from people who know -- specific constituents who know specific things -- or people from elsewhere -- who can provide information. So the better we use technology to gather information rapidly and have the right people -- not more people -- the right people to identify and deploy it.

Arizona Republican Trent Franks heads the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice. Here are the districts of its members:

Itir Sonuparlak

Franks is in a new district -- which means it's open for fresh constituent input. His district is only a couple hours from the site of the Tucson massacre where his former colleague Gabby Giffords was shot, and seven others were killed. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin leads the subcommittee that handles crime. His district is just minutes away from Oak Creek, site of the recent Sikh temple massacre. Here are the districts of all subcommittee members:

Itir Sonuparlak

Just think how much better oversight could be if members attending a gun hearing on Capitol Hill were supported in real-time by experts using webcasts and mobile devices. The teams could be composed of experienced knowledge curators: law enforcement officers, mental health experts, educators, doctors, community leaders, and data analysts.

The most important action individuals can take on guns or any other issue, however, is to build what Goodlatte requests -- networks of people with the best knowledge. While representatives decide for themselves to whom they will listen, citizens should establish themselves as reputable policy experts at the local level so that broadly inclusive knowledge reflecting their viewpoint is available to members. They have to do more than just click a button to send a form letter: Campaign tactics adapted for policy are unconvincing to lawmakers and easily filtered.

In policy, however, as in politics, timing is everything. This is a rare persuadable moment. Hopes for channeling the anguish and determination of Newtown's parents -- and others who crave a change in American gun law -- will ride on sophisticated organizing, expert judgment, savvy technologists, and real-time policy input from a multitude of voices that is unprecedentedly available today. These ingredients, together with a public that longs for change -- just might finally crack the NRA's policy cartel on Capitol Hill.

That's a great example of how the landscape is shifting. Congress' focus on information that addresses the here and now is driven by the most influential information providers to member offices. These are typically advocacy organizations and lobbyists that operate on electoral and budget-cycle timelines. With noise and money being the requisites to access to members, the institution has become less representative. But technology eliminates the advantages of timing and geographic proximity -- and by doing so offers a way to start fixing our dysfunctional status quo.

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Lorelei Kelly is a research fellow with the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation.

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