Rotating Congress

In today’s Washington Post, Dana Milbank does a typically brilliant job deconstructing the activities of Congress. He looks at how members of the various defense committees put their energies into fighting for home-state hand-outs rather than focusing on broader defense issues from a national perspective.

The dominance of parochial interests over the general public interest is, of course, a long-standing problem in Congress. Members from cotton-growing states gravitate to the farm committees in order to defend cotton interests, while members from inner cities gravitate to committees overseeing urban affairs to defend programs that subsidize their constituents.

The result is that Congress spends a lot of money on items that don’t have broad public support, and it spends little time actually considering policies from a national perspective.

A partial solution to the problem would be mandatory committee rotations every two years in the House and Senate. All committee assignments would be made by random selection at the beginning of each Congress.

People will say: “You can’t do that because members on particular committees are often experts in their field.” That would be a good argument if members used their expertise to serve the general interest of the public. Rep. Jack Murtha is an expert on defense issues, and in theory he could be spending his and his staff’s time probing Pentagon operations, reviewing administration defense strategies, overseeing procurement programs to reduce waste, and other public-spirited activities.

But that is apparently not what Murtha and most other members of Congress spend their time doing. Anyone who watches congressional committee action on C-SPAN can see the pattern that Milbank describes–members use their brief time with important witnesses to get in on-the-record statements in support of favored special interests. And their staffs spend most of their time figuring out how to maximize the home-state grab from the budget, not examining big-picture policy issues.

We have a $3 trillion government because members of Congress love to spend money, as a sort of general proclivity. But they are particularly addicted to spending money on their home states. Random committee assignment would help to disrupt that addiction, and it would allow members to adopt a more neutral and critical eye on matters in front of the committees that they were assigned.