A Primer on Congressional Behavior

Whatever your political alignment, you’ve likely bemoaned many issues with the country today; issues that seemingly can’t be solved by uncoordinated actions of individuals. This impulse is understandable. It comes from a place of empathy: we see the suffering of others and want to stop it, but are powerless to do so on our own.

In many cases, government action is indeed the only thing that can solve a problem. However, before we direct public resources to a problem, we should understand a few things:

1) What is the exact nature of the problem? What’s the size and scope?

2) What mechanism is best suited to solve it?

3) Given 1 and 2, how much will it cost–in human life, money*, and time–to apply an appropriate fix?

This is simply to say that, just like we do in our own lives, societies and governments should properly align issues and solutions. (If you’re trying to lose five pounds, you wouldn’t cut off your arm.) In the world of public policy, Congress is ostensibly our primary mechanism for action.** But few of us have any idea how the institution works in practice.

The Cato Institute’s Chris Edwards has put together a masterful essay that is essentially a primer for how Congress operates, how its individual members are incentivized, and the types of results we can typically expect.

“Congressional Incentives and Government Failure”: Chris Edwards (Cato)

Edwards combines classical political philosophy and contemporary political science research into an easily-accessible essay that is a crash course on congressional malincentives. This won’t make libertarians out of the average reader, nor is it intended to. Rather, the piece synthesizes insights from several brilliant minds on the center-left and center-right to better inform us about the most democratic institution we have. Consider it a “civics in practice” lesson.


*This is not to sound heartless. In a world of finite resources, spending money on one problem necessarily means there will be less to spend on others; government outlays by definition have opportunity costs, which we often forget when clamoring for new programs. Said another way, the question shouldn’t be “Do we want to spend X dollars on problem Y?”, but rather, “Do we want to divert X dollars from problem Z to problem Y?”

**The past decade or so has seen the rise of “regulatory creep” in which, for a variety of reasons, powers constitutionally delegated to Congress have been increasingly handed to and taken over by unelected regulatory bodies. It’s a crucial issue to be aware of but is beyond the scope of this post.

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