Can the Internet restore Congressional power?

The crisis on Wall Street and subsequent negotiation between the Bush Administration and Congress over solutions expose a dangerous weakness of the people’s branch in the modern era: legislators lack unity and the power that unity affords. They will lose almost every time they get into a showdown with the President, especially without an O’Neill or Gingrich to rally them. The fact that the representative branch of government operates at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the executive branch presents an enormous threat to our democracy.

High school civics classes teach that Congress makes the laws and the President enforces them. Americans would be forgiven if they think that it’s the President who makes law and Congress who has the veto power. The Wall Street bailout and the Iraq war resolution illustrate how — in high-profile crises — the Executive branch drives its agenda through Congress due to its superior ability to plan, focus attention, and control national discourse. Often, Congress is relegated to nibbling around the edges or poking holes in the President’s plans.

Making the first offer gives the Administration enormous leverage over Congress. In both the Iraq war resolution and the Wall Street bailout, Congress never really questioned the core premise (Iraq presents an imminent threat; the economy will collapse without intervention) nor strayed very far from the proposed solution (invade; bail out). We know, in the case of Iraq, at least, that this is not because the President was right on the merits. Rather, he was simply in the better bargaining position, having “anchored” the negotiation.

Administrations have also proven adept at controlling the pace of negotiations. The meltdown on Wall Street was real, but the Iraqi threat was not; yet in both cases, the executive branch set artificial timelines to exert pressure on Congress to accept its view of reality.

Both bargaining tactics are rooted in institutional advantages that the President enjoys over Congress: the staff and personnel to be better-informed (or at least look like it), and message discipline to speak with one voice. Congress “wins” when these strengths are minimized — for example, by dragging out the process and throwing up doubt and noise (see Bush’s failed Social Security and immigration initiatives) or small-bore issues that won’t get national attention. No wonder earmarks have gone haywire.

Mass media have strengthened the executive branch’s power. Television and radio favor those who speak with one voice; Congress is by nature as fractured, contentious, and divided as the electorate itself — something that, paradoxically, the electorate don’t like. In the history of the Gallop Polls’ Congressional approval ratings, Congress has never broken 50%, except right after 9/11. Moreover, broadcast news puts heavy pressure towards real-time drama, something that C-SPAN has proven the Congress lacks.

How does or can the Internet change this dynamic?

First, the Internet is starting to fracture the broadcast bias towards singular voices. We can see the various Netroots refracting and punching holes in political marketing campaigns. Clearly this was insufficient to halt the Iraq war or the bailout, but it remains to be seen whether Internet chatter will gain enough strength to effectively counterbalance the MSM’s tendency to amplify already-powerful messages.

But it’s not enough to destroy hegemonic messaging; the result would be anarchy. I hope, instead, that the deliberative strength of our democracy will expand as the Internet matures as a medium. David Weinberger, my colleague at Berkman, has mused on how the Internet might function as an e-gov social network. This is, I think, the right question, but David grounds that function in the wrong institution. We all want a more transparent Administration, but it’s Congress that’s sorely in need of more deliberative power to counterbalance the Administration’s already mighty dominance over American democracy.

Imagine if, in the past two weeks, Internet technologies had given grassroots networks the ability to rally citizenry around carefully-crafted alternatives to the Paulson-Bernanke plan. Better yet, imagine if in the past few months those networks enabled Congress to tap the wisdom of our citizenry to craft a democratic yet expert plan — proactively — to respond to the crisis before it broke. Science-fiction writer Victor Venge has posited that today’s predictive markets will evolve into rapid-response networks capable of quickly gathering, synthesizing, and analyzing data to support complex decision-making. It’s idealistic, but not impossible to imagine, such network restoring democratic principles to our increasingly top-down government. Everyone would have a role to play in such a system — experts in shaping policy strategy, ordinary citizens in shaping the values that such policies must meet. Lingering anger on both the left and right over not just the Iraq war and the bailout, but also how they were rammed through Congress, may provide us the opportune moment to begin building this future.

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2 thoughts on “Can the Internet restore Congressional power?

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