Tag Archives: effective communication

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A Few Lessons From a Congress That Can’t Govern

Congress is the best example of the price we can pay when the rewards of public performance are greater than those of private negotiation.

Most Americans continue to focus on the broken Presidency.  Even so, no one looking for a model of governmental efficiency would get much comfort from a good look at the American Congress. Its twin failures to produce effective public policy and work with the President offer cautionary truths about how not to communicate to produce effective action.

The impeachment process is an aberration, if a necessary one.  But the bipartisanship that characterized the Nixon impeachment is missing.  It’s also true that this President does not think of himself as a true partner with the Congress. That’s obvious now, but even in prior years he showed little interest in helping to shape legislation.

All these caveats don’t fully explain why the two deliberative bodies within the Capitol are examples that no country wants to emulate.  And there are a few more. There is some cooperation at the staff level, and examples of effective bi-partisan cooperation are occasionally on display, as with the passage of ­­­­ several jobs and tax bills in 2012 and 2015­­­­­­­­­­, and in recent bipartisan condemnation of the President’s withdrawal of support for the Kurds in Syria. But the oft-heard cliche is now true: Congress is a broken institution with public approval ratings to match.

While this branch of the federal establishment was not designed to work with the efficiency of a parliament, where a head of government is chosen from the party that wins a plurality of seats, congressional dysfunction now leaves so much on the table that needs to be addressed: everything from immigration reform to timely allocations of funds for infrastructure improvements. We knew this institution was in deep trouble recently when in 2013 a sizable number of members were ready to risk a government default and the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency: all for the purpose of pressing a dubious ideological point.

Members note that they no longer the case that they socialize after work or even share a meal while in session. 

What’s wrong?  What best practices for communicating in organizations are routinely ignored?  Briefly, some of the overwhelming problems on Capitol Hill have their origins in two ineffective communication patterns.

The first is that the body is obviously and hopelessly organized into factions—notably parties, special interest caucuses, and their media—making it likely that members will only work in groups rather than as a whole.  Since most of the process of legislating is done away from the floors of the House and Senate, it falls to party leaders, whips and members to work out in private and with their own caucuses what they will accept by way of a legislative agenda. Differences of opinion have fewer chances to be moderated in environments that would encourage conciliation.  The founders feared this hyper partisanship for good reason.  Indeed, Senate Leader Mitch McConnell moves so cautiously in his narrow partisan lane that it can be hard to tell if his image on a screen is a still photo or video.

This problem is compounded by a long tradition of individual offices set up as separate fiefdoms and spread over four buildings on the east side of the capitol. One wonders how different legislative life would be if the 100 members of the Senate worked in the conditions known to most of white-collar America:  in the same ‘cubicle farm’ spread over one floor. Support staffs who enable the isolation of members could be moved to lower floors. This would encourage more discussion across party lines and more functional coalition-building.

A second problem is the changing character of those seeking high public office. In the age of the internet and 24-hour news there seems to be more interest in the expressive possibilities of serving in public office than actually doing the work of governing.  The requirements to continually raise campaign funds and screen time are all-consuming.

In the lore of Congress there has always been an expectation that the “show horses” would sometimes win out over the “work horses.”  A retired Lyndon Johnson once complained to a CBS producer about the “pretty boys” created by the growth of television.  The former Senate Majority leader’s point was that visual media gave rise to a new breed of members more interested in the theater of politics than finding ways to bridge differences.

Congress is simply the best example of the price we can pay when the rewards of public performance are greater than those of private negotiation.  So it offers some cautionary reminders to the rest of us working in complex bureaucracies. First, we can’t afford to isolate ourselves from others we expect to sign on to our initiatives. Leading  effectively still means using communication to build and sustain relations with those who have different views.  In addition, since its a solid axiom that we more easily find comity in small groups, trying to forge leadership from large bodies needs to be seen for the problem it frequently is: the organizational equivalent of trying to get even a few dozen college professors to form a single straight line.


                        Tiananmen Square

Sometimes the best we can do as advocates is lend our physical presence to a cause.

Evangelicals often talk about their modes of worship as forms of “witnessing.”  Their lives and the ways they live them are meant to be “testimony” for what they believe.  But the term can also be used more broadly. We can see another form of witnessing at weddings.  The point is to be in the same space with the new couple, endorsing their union by our presence.  With less fanfare a notary exists to attest to the signing of a contract or legal document.  And we may be asked to stand up and be counted at a municipal meeting, if a leader wants a sense of how many supporters for a proposed ordinance are in the room.  And, of course, there is the unforgettable young man who placed himself in front of Chinese military tanks during the pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

Sometimes the best we can do as advocates depends less on what we say and more on the fact that  we have lent our bodies to a cause or way of thinking.

This idea rose recently as I was canvassing for a political candidate with a partner.  The homes we visited were all connected, one front door just a few feet from the next. Our job on this warm afternoon was to go to a number of houses, knocking on doors and expressing our enthusiasm for the candidate we favored.

After perhaps ten homes with few doorbells answered my partner began to wonder whether the effort was doing any good.  Why wouldn’t a phone call been just as effective?  It would certainly be a lot easier.

My answer spoken with more conviction than I’d earned was that it was good for the people who were home but stayed behind closed doors and open windows to know that others cared enough to try to connect. They surely overhead our conversations. Our physical presence in their neighborhood was its own act of testifying; just being there ‘performed’ our conviction in a public way.  And that’s the thing about witnessing; it has to be seen by some audience; it can’t be totally anonymous.

We witness for the cameras and for each other, sometimes using disruptions of the routines of a public space to make a point. Think of protests carried out by the Black Lives Matter movement, Occupy Wall Street, or the silent strike vigils that happen in front of troubled businesses. If we need to give our cause gravitas we can also draw comparisons to Gandhi, to mid-Century freedom rides through hostile Southern towns, or to the current encampments of native Americans near the Dakota Access Pipeline.

We flatter ourselves with what may be unearned leaps up into the thin air of high moral purpose. For sure, our silent presence is not likely to register with anything like the poignancy of the man in Tiananmen Square. But the fact remains:  sometimes the simplest way to make our case is to lend our bodies to a cause, “witnessing” even in silence.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu