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

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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Brian Snyder/Reuters

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.

Presented by

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

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