Cato, Congress, and the Realities of Governing (with Jeff Vanderslice and Matt Weibel)

Jeff Vanderslice & Matt Weibel join us today to discuss the inner workings of Congress.

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What tends to drive Congress’s institution overall? Where do organizations like Cato fit into the legislative process? What is the difference between the work that think tanks like Cato, and that of the Hill and lobbyists? Who is writing the actual legislation that might become law?

Further Readings/References:

The Statrix: How Government Wraps Our Perception of the World - Free Thoughts Podcast

Washington’s Five Tricks - Free Thoughts Podcast

The Distinction Between Governance and Government - Free Thoughts Podcast

Building a Better Government - Free Thoughts Podcast

 

[music]

00:07 Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.

00:09 Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.

00:10 Aaron Powell: Joining us today are Jeff Vanderslice and Matt Weibel, directors of Government Affairs at the Cato Institute. Welcome to Free Thoughts.

00:16 Matt Weibel: Thanks for having us.

00:18 Aaron Powell: What does a Director of Government Affairs do?

00:21 Jeff Vanderslice: The main thing is really trying to convey the message that all of Cato’s experts produce the great research and commentary and so forth that you all produce, that it’s conveyed to folks in government in an effective way. That’s probably the way in which we go about our jobs, which is being prompt and responsive to folks who reach out to us, but also being proactive, figuring out who exactly needs to hear a particular message that you guys have created.

01:00 Matt Weibel: Yeah. So, we’re on Capitol Hill a lot, talking to members of Congress and their staffs about the newest scholarship that’s coming from Cato, and we make sure the scholars here know what’s happening on Capitol Hill. If there’s a healthcare bill coming up, if there’s some other issue coming up, we make sure that our men and women here know exactly what’s going on, so we can be relevant for the policy discussion.

01:24 Aaron Powell: So we’ll dig into what all of that entails and the logistics of how Cato talks to the Hill, but first, what’s your backgrounds? How does someone end up in a role like this?

01:37 Matt Weibel: So, I worked for Congress for almost a decade, total, but left as Deputy Chief for Representative Justin Amash from Michigan. And so, I was with him for seven-and-a-half years, and there was a lot of time researching bills, learning the legislative process, the ins and outs of how that works. And over that decade of time, you build relationships on the Hill with staffers, who… They may have been a staff assistant in 2010, and now they’re a Legislative Director, or a Chief of Staff now. So, I think, both Jeff and I spent a lot of time on the Hill, and we just know a lot of people. And of course, not everybody stays on the Hill for a long time, so we also know people who were on the Hill and then left and are somewhere else in DC, so, the networking aspect is a huge part of it.

02:29 Jeff Vanderslice: And I think also, having worked on the Hill, I worked for a little over a decade for a member from California Congressman, Dana Rohrabacher, and worked my way up through his office and left when after I was his Chief of Staffer for several years… I’m sorry, his Legislative Director for several years. I gave myself a promotion, that I never got.

[laughter]

02:54 Jeff Vanderslice: But being on the Hill, and being the recipient of information from organizations like the Cato Institute, you really understand what is most effective, what was not quite effective. Matt and I probably have various stories of instances in which we reached out to one organization or individual, or another, and either got a response that wasn’t helpful or was not timely. And so, those are the types of things that I think were helpful and that we were able to learn on the Hill.

03:33 Trevor Burrus: This will be very general question. We can sort of get down into it more, but for American people who think Congress is broken and it’s full of a bunch of corrupt people who are taking money and not listening to the smart people involved, and they wonder what is making Congress act… What causes, what drives Congress, would you say? And the main thing, if Congress is dealing with something, can you broaden out… Like, so they’re gonna do a healthcare bill tomorrow, but what causes that to happen? Is it ‘cause the President wants their healthcare bill? In any given administration, is it because leadership wants a healthcare bill? Is it because of news stories all of a sudden come out about a healthcare bill? And then you have other things that are just not being discussed at all. No one’s doing gun control right now, so what tends to drive Congress’s institution overall?

04:18 Matt Weibel: So it’s partially a leadership-driven process. Leadership has an agenda, and we’re gonna do these things in July, we’re gonna do this when we come back in September. Right now, it’s no secret, they’re planning on messaging bills that they wanna go into the August recess, having passed. So you can go home, have Town Hall meetings, and tell your constituents, “Hey, we just did this in June and July, we did this right before the break.”

04:42 Aaron Powell: What makes something a messaging bill?

04:44 Matt Weibel: Something with a good title. It sounds good, but it doesn’t really do anything.

04:50 Trevor Burrus: And they know this. I mean, this is not… They know that these bills are basically for that. This is not like, “Oops, this doesn’t do anything.” It intentionally does not do anything.

04:57 Jeff Vanderslice: Or I would say, a messaging bill is something that would do something, but has zero chance of ever being enacted into law, right? And so they know, they put this forward, they throw that out there, just to appeal to a particular constituency or something.

05:14 Matt Weibel: Yes. So ObamaCare is a perfect example. In the 112th, 113th and 114th Congresses, all of the Republicans voted to repeal it. Straight repeal. That vote hasn’t come up in the 115th Congress. They voted for it back then, because they knew it wouldn’t go anywhere. And now they know that with Republicans in control of government, that it could go somewhere, and maybe they don’t want it to. Or before, they knew President Obama wouldn’t sign something into law, so let’s just go home and say, “Hey, we fought hard to repeal ObamaCare, but the President’s not gonna sign it.” But some of the other messaging bills are… Maybe the opioid bills, where we’re talking about the opioid epidemic. And so, there will be a very short bill and give it a good title, “Opioid Addiction Awareness Act.” And it might be two million dollars of grant funding. And so that doesn’t really, really do anything, but the congressmen can go home and say, “Hey I had a bill passed. It has my name on it. Look how effective I am.” And leadership can say, “Look, this is in the news, but we’re responding.”

06:18 Trevor Burrus: Now that would imply that in any given Congress, the first year… What is the different between the first year, and then the election year? Is the behavior… Is it a very big break, or is it like, “Well next year, we have an election coming up.”, so 2017, but then 2018, and this happens every two years, so you get into Congress and you can propose a bunch of things, but then when do they start changing modes in that way?

06:39 Jeff Vanderslice: Yeah, I think the biggest difference between an off year and an election year, is just that an election year tends to be a truncated year. If you intend to get anything through the legislative process, it probably needs to happen before the August recess. So July 31st is kind of an informal cut-off. After that is kind of a dead zone. You might be able to pass an appropriations bill, or more likely just a continuing resolution that continues government funding through the election and into the lame duck, and then sometimes you can see a flurry of activity again, immediately after the election, before the new Congress is sworn in. So, I’m sure someone has done research to show exactly how many pieces of legislation are signed into law in an odd-numbered year versus an even-numbered year, but I think the most obvious thing to folks on the Hill, is that you hit the ground running after an election. You have that entire year to try and push things through. Going into an election year, you have about seven months and then things kinda freeze.

07:57 Aaron Powell: So in this process when there’s legislation that they wanna pass, whether it’s messaging legislation or substantive legislation, where do organizations like Cato fit into that? At what point do we come into the process and how do they use the material that we create?

08:16 Jeff Vanderslice: I think from, at every stage along the way, really. Sometimes research produced by an organization like Cato can be a catalyst for legislative change, or it can serve to inform members as they go about working on a particular issue that’s been set in motion by another event, say, a White House agenda, a State of the Union address, or Leadership Initiative in the House or Senate. So I think, really, there are multiple ways and multiple points at which an organization like Cato can really be beneficial to members. We get folks who reach out to us saying, “We’re looking to propose an amendment to a larger piece of legislation. Have you guys written anything about issue X?” And if we can send that along to them and they find it useful, that may help them in their thinking as they formulate an amendment to a larger piece of legislation.

09:31 Matt Weibel: Yeah I’ll just echo that and say it definitely happens where at the very beginning of the process, people will contact Jeff or myself and say, “What scholarship do you have on this? What do you guys think of this idea for legislation?” And then also at the very end of the process. For example, in May, we did a Capitol Hill briefing on the Farm Bill. And that was with a couple other groups that we work with on occasion, and it was, “Hey, the Farm Bill is coming up for a vote next week, let’s break down what’s in it and let’s talk about some of the crop subsidies and ways that you could amend it.” And so that’s obviously at the very end of the process, but you’re trying to make sure staff are aware of what’s in the bill.

10:11 Aaron Powell: When a member or his or her office reaches out for research, so they’ve got a bill they wanna work on, and they wanna know if we have research, are they looking for research to inform what they are gonna do? Or are they looking for research to support what they already want to do?

10:29 Matt Weibel: Sometimes both. It’ll depend on the member. Some will ask for feedback and we’ll just say, “What do you have that’s in line with this?” Because it’s helpful for them, when they try to get co-sponsors for a bill, to say, “Hey the Cato Institute supports these types of policies. This is a good limited government bill, and look what Cato wrote about this sort of policy.”

10:55 Trevor Burrus: In terms of… We talked about what drives Congress, and that obviously they are 435 or I guess 36, if you include Eleanor Holmes Norton, answers to this, but what drives the members? I mean, it depends on the member, but do you ever break them down into classes like is it the true warriors of ideology, versus people who are just there for the title, versus people who have one thing that they care about, and they don’t really care about anything else, versus the wallflowers or something like that? Maybe that’s a categorization that makes sense, I don’t know.

11:28 Jeff Vanderslice: Yeah, no. I think it’s a lot of things that drive members. They all come from disparate districts from far flung areas of the country, who are hoping likely to be re-elected to Congress, so they’re certainly responsive to their constituents as a whole, but also constituencies within their congressional districts, or senate districts if it’s a Senator, of course. So I think it’s multiple things. I think that a lot of them also have aspirations to move up in their respective chambers, so there is certainly an element of the job that involves pleasing leadership, so that eventually they can become chairman of a committee or a ranking member of a committee. There are a lot of other organizations, caucuses; there’s an ongoing jockeying to see who will become the next leader of the Republican Study Committee, for instance. There are lots of different groups within Congress that I think members kind of align themselves with, in the hopes of gaining more influence within their own, within that very organization.

12:56 Matt Weibel: I think it’s hard to say this generally, but some members are driven by status. That’s why you see these self-funded politicians who will dump one or two million dollars of their own money into a congressional race, just so that they can get the title of Congressman. I mean, if you’re already a millionaire, why do you need to go to Congress? The Congressional salaries are relatively low, compared to what they’re probably making off the Hill. So one thing, status does drive people and they wanna be re-elected, but there are definitely the true warriors out there, who are fighting for liberty on an everyday basis.

13:32 Trevor Burrus: Or something else.

13:33 Matt Weibel: Or something else, yeah. So maybe some of them are fighting for Universal Health Care, but they have an issue that is near and dear to their heart, and they spend a lot of time focusing on that one issue.

13:45 Jeff Vanderslice: And I would say my observation, and this is a general statement again, that most members seem to have a conviction, a policy conviction, an idea of how the world should look or how the country should look, and I think that is a major driving force for members of Congress. I think there’s a lot of cynicism about, “Oh well, it’s just about status, or it’s all just about ego, or an eventual payday, once they join the local lobbying firm,” or something like that. I am not quite that cynical. And of course, I think that’s a motivating factor, to some extent, for some members, but I think most members, while they’re on the Hill, hope and intend to do something specific policy-wise.

14:41 Trevor Burrus: And then so on that point, ‘cause that leads to my next question which is… And I tell students in classes and lectures, I give a bunch, where I say that they’re not bad people, Libertarians might overplay that hand. So let’s assume they’re all Jimmy Stewart and Mr. Smith goes to Washington. And so he goes to Mr. Smith, new Congressman, never been in Congress before, goes to Washington, he’s gonna clean up this town or do something. I’m gonna have a specific agenda, let’s say it’s health care they wanna get in. So they come in, and what is the biggest, you think, rude awakening that some new, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed member of Congress comes in with Jimmy Stewart-style of thinking… I feel like in the first couple months they might learn something that they didn’t know before, about how this town, and that building actually works. What is that rude awakening?

15:31 Matt Weibel: You quickly learn that Washington is very much set in its ways. So I worked for a member who was a freshman at one time, and within the first couple of months, he had walked over to the opposite side of the aisle to talk to his colleagues, and he came back over and an older member who had been around for awhile said, “What are you doing over there? That’s the other side. We don’t talk to the other side.” And he says, my former boss says, “These are my colleagues. If we’re gonna get something done, we have to work together.” And this isn’t to say that the sides don’t talk to each other, or the parties don’t work together, but that was a way that was set where it’s sort of… Maybe you’re not as friendly with the other side.

16:12 Jeff Vanderslice: And I think another thing that is sometimes a rude awakening for some members, is a lot of them are fairly accomplished in their… Whatever field they just came from. They were either a business owner, or a doctor, maybe they had their own law firm or something. And they got used to people doing what they told them to do. They said, “I want this project completed within the next six months. And if that doesn’t happen, you’ll be in here explaining to me why that doesn’t happen.” Well, a member of Congress will not be all that successful if they say, “Universal Health Care has to happen in six months, and staff it’s on your shoulders to make sure that happens, or else you’ll be back in here explaining to me why you weren’t successful.” And I think they very quickly realize that Congress is not a business, it can’t run like a business, it won’t. So acting like a business owner is not going… In a lot of those same ways, is not going to result in success. And I certainly saw that during my time on the Hill, I think.

17:30 Trevor Burrus: So move their goals down?

17:31 Jeff Vanderslice: Well, its not… I don’t know that it’s necessarily that. I mean, if you’re a business owner, you don’t necessarily have an opposing force at your door pushing against everything that you’re trying to accomplish. And if you’re a member who’s trying to achieve goal X, guess what? There’s at least as many members opposed to the very thing you’re trying to accomplish. So yeah, maybe lower your goals. [chuckle] Or expectations, rather, not goals, but…

18:07 Aaron Powell: What role do donors play in all of this? From the outside people think that members of Congress are basically at the beck and call of whoever contributed to their campaign, and obviously there are people who contributed to their campaign, but do campaign contributors have the ear of members of Congress? Are members of Congress reactive to their interests?

18:30 Matt Weibel: I think donors definitely have the ear, because they have the access. If you pay a lot of money to go to an event, you expect some face time with the member of Congress, and so that’s much more influential maybe than just the average person writing a letter. When you’re there with the member of Congress talking face to face, you have that issue in their mind, and that’s different from saying, “Hey, boss, we got a 1000 letters on health care today.” So, they definitely have an influence because you just have the face time that ordinary citizens necessarily wouldn’t get. And even at a town hall meeting that’s open forum, a public event, you have a few seconds to ask your question and then the member has to move on to the next question. So there’s not the type of discussion that a donor might be able to have at a separate time.

19:25 Jeff Vanderslice: I generally seem to think that members formulate their position or their opinion first, and the money sort of follows after, and there’s money to fund whatever point of view a member eventually takes. So, if you’re gonna… Let’s just say you take a pro-business view, again talking in general terms, take a pro-business view on a particular bill versus an environmental view on the bill, whatever position you take, there will probably be someone, some organization that will notice and will follow up with checks. And mostly because they want to make sure that that individual gets re-elected. And so I think it is probably true that members of Congress who receive a donation from an individual may be more willing to meet with that individual at a later time, or might be more likely to run into them at an event or something like that, but I generally, if you’re talking about the chicken-egg kinda thing [chuckle], I generally think that the positions come first and then the money follows from groups that are interested in seeing those members re-elected.

20:53 Aaron Powell: What’s the difference between think tanks like Cato and what we do on the Hill, and lobbyists?

21:01 Matt Weibel: So, lobbyists, they have a specific action that they want Congress to take. You need to pass this bill because it’s good for my client and here’s how it will affect them. Cato talks about policy rather than specific legislative action. We say. “Okay, here, take this bill. Let’s talk about the policy behind it.”, and say, “This is a good policy for a limited government, or this increases the size and scope of government. Libertarians shouldn’t agree with this.” So it’s more of a philosophical argument that we’re trying to make as opposed to, “You should do this because it’s good for my client. They have a factory in your district, and it’s 1000 jobs and therefore you have to support it.”

21:48 Trevor Burrus: Between lobbyists and think tanks, it has always struck me as interesting that if you take something like the Farm Bill, or another one of these 1000-page pieces of legislation that we tend to pass now, and it’s full of a bunch of things, like ObamaCare was full of various subsidies and changes to insurance underwriting, and all this stuff, that I can’t imagine that a lot of people who are Hill staffers, given the amount of stuff in legislation, that a given member doesn’t have someone on staff who knows everything about section 702 of the FCC code or something that might have been changed in some recent piece of legislation.

22:24 Trevor Burrus: And there’s a paper that came out about 10 years ago, I think, a political science journal article called, “Lobbying is a Legislative Subsidy,” and the argument there is that staff is too small to know what government is doing, so members of… People who work for members of Congress and Senators have to call someone who knows what is going on when you’re dealing with regulating peanut growers in Southern Georgia, which are… There’s tons of laws, trust me, I know. There are tons of laws that regulate peanut growers in Southern Georgia, but I don’t think that there’s a specialist on Amash’s staff who knows about southern peanut growing regulations. How does the staff of members of Congress and Senators deal with that information problem there, and maybe Cato can figure in there, too, but also maybe lobbyists, too?

23:12 Jeff Vanderslice: I think certainly a lot of members of Congress take kind of a 30,000-foot view of a particular piece of legislation. So they might look at the Farm Bill and say, “What’s the bottom line? Does this expand the size and scope of the federal government?” If it does, given my underlying philosophy, I’m going to oppose it. I don’t need to know about peanut farmers in Georgia or elsewhere to know that the overall policy is moving in the wrong direction. So, I think that’s one way that it can be dealt with, but I think it also really illustrates one of the main frustrations of a lot of members of Congress, which is that the House and Senate generally don’t vote on small pieces of legislation one issue at a time. They couple this massive Farm Bill together, which is not just farm subsidies, it’s also SNAP, and they vote on them together. Appropriations bills, they might get through one chamber, one bill at a time, but at the end of the day, when… Whatever is going to be signed into law, usually it’s packaged together with several other bills and it’s passed as either what they call a minibus or a megabus, which is usually all of the appropriations bills or an omnibus.

24:39 Jeff Vanderslice: And so, I’ve always thought that if… And I think that a lot of other members would prefer to see this too, is that if you broke things down into smaller pieces, you could actually achieve much greater policy advancements. I think the art of legislating in large part is, it has everything to do with building and maintaining coalitions. We’re probably not anytime soon gonna see 218 libertarians in the House of Representatives, or 51 libertarians in the Senate at the same time that there’s a libertarian in the White House.

25:24 Jeff Vanderslice: But if you take an issue like one that I worked on, which was Marijuana Policy, we had a legislative success using a coalition of libertarian-minded Republicans, moderate Republicans, and a whole lot of Democrats who came together and said, “Yes, on medical marijuana we should not be basically sending the DOJ to lock up people who are acting in compliance with their state laws.” And so, that’s really a libertarian position. Does that mean that everybody who voted for this ascribes to all of the other tenets of libertarian philosophy? Certainly not. But if you vote on things in a piecemeal enough fashion, I think there’s a chance to really tackle some of these bigger issues.

26:20 Matt Weibel: And to address the underlying question about the knowledge that lobbyists have, yes, they know more generally about their specific issue than your average Congressional staffer and certainly more than the member of Congress, and so this is an argument people make of why we shouldn’t have term limits, because if you have term limits, you have a new member come in, you have a new staff, they’re constantly turning over, you have no expertise on the process of how the House or the Senate are supposed to work or on the issues. So the lobbyists come in, and they say, “Hey, we already have a white paper for you on this issue, and this is why it’s good or bad.” So that’s one thing that people will do when they argue against term limits, is that we need the staff expertise and the members need to be around for a while to learn the process so it’s not outsourced, so to speak, to lobbyists.

27:09 Trevor Burrus: How much does it matter on this question of the huge bills? They bring them all together, and they say, “Okay, Republicans are gonna vote on this.” I don’t know if they… If Paul Ryan or the speaker sends out an email that says, “We’ve decided if the party is going to vote on this or something…

27:24 Matt Weibel: They all go put their hands on the orb.

27:25 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, they all go put their hands on the orb, and say, “Yay Republicans, yay to whatever,” but how much does being a team player matter in your standing in Congress? If you constantly come in, and say, “No, I’m not gonna vote on that, because there’s three lines in this omnibus Farm Bill, but I’m here to protest the side’s scope of government.”, so you’re sort of a gadfly in the entire process, and then, would that hurt you in the Republican side of the cafeteria, and Congress? Would no one sit with you, and therefore no one will sponsor your bills, and therefore no one will return your phone calls. Is that another dynamic that goes on in Congress?

28:06 Jeff Vanderslice: I think it is a dynamic. I heard fairly early on in my time on the Hill that someone from one of the parties leaderships early on expressed to a new member who said, “You know, it’s okay if you vote against us, but don’t ever surprise us.” And so, I think there’re varying levels of what’s acceptable. And so if you, let’s say, oppose a measure on the floor, that’s not the same as first telling the whip, “Yeah, I’m with you.”, and then voting against it, for obvious reasons, but there’s definitely I think a culture in which leadership generally respects where members are coming from, they understand that they have their re-election prospects in mind, that a lot of members should be free to a certain extent, to vote however they need. But the way in which you conduct yourself as you oppose measures that leadership brings to the floor, I think matters quite a bit to the leadership.

29:19 Matt Weibel: And I think the general rank-and-file membership wants you to be a team player, because they wanna say, “We know how to govern, we can get things past. This is why you should vote for our party.” And when you’re not a team player, there certainly can be consequences. It’s one thing if leadership understands where you’re coming from, and they have the… But they have the numbers to pass something. It’s something else when you’re in committee for example, and this happened with my boss, he and another member, my former boss, he and another member voted against the budget in the budget committee. And Republicans were supposed to be able to pass this easily out of committee. Well, it was a terrible budget in our minds, it didn’t reach a balance in 10 years.

30:00 Matt Weibel: And even some of the worst budgets will somehow reach balance in 10 years, ‘cause they estimate huge economic growth or whatever. But a couple of weeks later he and another member were kicked off the budget committee. So, there are consequences to not being a team player, where you’ll lose a prime committee assignment or maybe you do have to sit on the other side of the cafeteria or maybe, when it comes to a primary challenge, your colleagues don’t support you. And maybe they don’t actively help the challenger, but they don’t step in to support, maybe somebody in the same delegation or from the same region.

30:37 Aaron Powell: So, these bills that they’re discussing in committee are eventually voting on in the floor. Who writes those? Who’s writing the actual legislation that might become law?

30:50 Matt Weibel: So, technically, House Legislative Counsel writes the bill. So this is a group of lawyers that work for the House where a member or a staffer can go to these lawyers, and say, “Hey we have an idea for a bill, this is what we wanted to accomplish.” That’s one way to do it. The other way to do it is to have a lawyer on staff, or have your staffer review the law and try to write it, or at least an outline, for themselves. Which I think is a better way of doing it, at least to start. So that way, you’re doing some work and you have some hand in the process. Another way is where lobbyists come in and they have the bill drafted for you. They know exactly what they want changed in law, or maybe it’s a trade association, not necessarily a lobbyist, but a special interest, where they know what section of law is affecting them and they come to your door and they say, “Hey we think you should do this and here’s legislative text, here’s what it would look like. Because we have lawyers in our corporation, or our trade association, or our lobbying firm that know exactly what needs to be changed.

31:57 Trevor Burrus: So that would be… The question… A member of Congress… Again, think about the first week of someone just getting to the Hill and… ‘Cause there’s like an orientation, isn’t there, for new members of Congress, or is it…

32:07 Matt Weibel: There is a new member orientation. I think it’s two weeks after the election.

32:12 Trevor Burrus: The election?

32:13 Matt Weibel: Yeah.

32:13 Trevor Burrus: ‘Cause it’s… You don’t necessarily know how to be a member of Congress ‘cause you won an election. You may have no idea and all the rules here… But he says, “I wanna legalize marijuana.” So you say, “It’s okay Jeff, get on that. Come here, you’re working for a new member. I wanna write a bill to legalize marijuana.” And if you look at the bill, there’s all these bills always just floating around that already do that too. There’s a ton, I don’t even know how many on just de-scheduling marijuana are out there, and they’ve been sitting around forever, but nothing ever happens. So do you first go look and see if there’s an existing bill, or what would the process be with the new member in that situation?

32:51 Jeff Vanderslice: Yeah, the process would usually… I think most folks at Legislative Counsel, the organization that Matt just referenced, would prefer that you do some of your research first. So your first step might be going to the Congressional Research Service and asking them that very question. “Has anybody attempted to do that? Can you give us examples of past legislation that’s been introduced on this topic?” And there are also a lot of attorneys at CRS, who could say, “This is precisely the section of law that you want to amend, and here are some things that you should take into consideration when talking to legislative counsel.” And then your next message maybe to legislative counsel with the information that you’ve gathered and asking them to draft a piece of legislation. And a lot of times it’s a back and forth process. You get a draft back. Sometimes they put in the header, a discussion draft, and they have a lot of blanks depending on what exactly you’re trying to accomplish, and you can have discussions with other staff, sometimes with committee staff, if they might be inclined to help you with a piece of legislation. You might take it back to CRS and say, “What specifically would be the policy implications of taking approach A versus approach B in this space?” and going from there.

34:30 Aaron Powell: We see a lot of theatrics in Congress. So we… Just last week was that they had the hearing with the FBI agent, where members were holding up signs. And a lot of it feels pretty over the top and frequently looks kind of silly. Do members of congress… How earnest are they in their theatrics? Are they play acting? Do they know how ridiculous this can look? Do they not know? Sometimes it’s hard when they’re really getting into this, to look at this and be like, “Is this person serious?”

35:10 Matt Weibel: I think a lot of it is for show, and that doesn’t mean that there aren’t members passionate about an issue, who really would get fired up in a committee hearing. But what you see that you can say, “Wow that’s over the top,” it happens on a regular basis, even if you don’t think it’s over the top, where the member could be arguing with… A Republican could be arguing with a Democrat and then after the hearing they can go laugh about it. And I’m not gonna say that they would say, “Oh yeah, this was a great show that we put on,” but they, generally speaking, it’s my impression that you want the media hit. You wanna be on the news for a few minutes, because it looks like you’re really passionate about something, and maybe you are, and it looks like you’re doing your job, you’re there, you’re causing a fuss, you’re asking this government agency why they spent money improperly and that sort of thing. But it does wear on you, as a staffer, because you see… Or it wore on me as a staffer, because I saw members who would always put on the show and it was just for the sake of the show.

36:15 Trevor Burrus: Well getting that, media hit is incredibly important. I always think it’s amazing that… I work here and I do… I work in DC, but I don’t do what you guys do with government affairs, but I don’t think, even if you’re really informed about Congress, it would be hard to name more than a 100 members of Congress off the top of your head.

36:34 Matt Weibel: How many can you guys name off the top of your head?

36:37 Trevor Burrus: We’re gonna start this right now?

[chuckle]

[overlapping conversation]

36:40 Matt Weibel: We have about 20 minutes left, so…

36:42 Trevor Burrus: But like a 100. If EMP were really informed, like a 100 would be a lot. And there’s still 335 that you’re missing, who would love to be one of the names you remember. And one of the names you remember maybe come from getting a good history on a media hit, or thinking that Guam will capsize, as Hank Johnson famously believed at one point. So, it is interesting. And these committees you mentioned, they’re just part of the tradition, they’re not on the Constitution or anything, but they have these committees that Congress delegates certain responsibilities to, and then… How do you become members of various committees? You get assigned committees when you get there, correct? If you’re a member of Congress, initially.

37:20 Matt Weibel: Right, yeah. So leadership generally asks members what their committee preferences are. And from…

37:26 Trevor Burrus: What’s the one no one wants to be on? Is there like a real black sheep?

37:30 Matt Weibel: Small business or…

37:31 Jeff Vanderslice: House administration.

37:32 Trevor Burrus: House administration? Okay.

37:33 Jeff Vanderslice: Yeah.

37:33 Matt Weibel: Which is very powerful in DC, but not outside.

37:35 Trevor Burrus: So if you really make people mad you find yourself transferred to House Administration or something like that?

37:41 Aaron Powell: Is everyone on a committee?

37:45 Jeff Vanderslice: Yes. I believe so.

37:46 Matt Weibel: There have been instances in the past where, again because you’re punished, members haven’t had any committee assignments, but…

37:51 Trevor Burrus: Do they move you to the broom closet? Your office is now the broom closet?

37:54 Jeff Vanderslice: That’s right.

37:56 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, okay.

37:57 Jeff Vanderslice: But otherwise, yes.

37:58 Trevor Burrus: But otherwise, yes, yeah.

38:00 Jeff Vanderslice: Yeah. So basically… Yeah, leadership gives you a list, asks you to rank your top, let’s say, five preferences for committee assignments. I think it’s a combination of that, what your background is, what you have to add to a particular committee. I think there is probably some internal selection so that they don’t stack. Let’s say a particular committee with… Let’s say the Agriculture Committee with too many people who are skeptical of agriculture subsidies. They may be reticent to do that, but otherwise, it’s kind of a play between leadership’s preferences and the member’s preferences. There are certain committee assignments that play better back home than others. So if you represent a major military base, you as a member, may want to be on the Armed Services Committee and leadership may also want to give you Armed Services Committee because that’s going to bode well for your re-election prospects, your knowledge, and ability to effect change on that committee and so forth, yeah.

39:14 Trevor Burrus: And becoming like a Chair or a ranking member of that, you have to put in your time for that, correct? And if you do become a Chair of, at least, especially a very prominent committee, that really helps with your fundraising and electoral prospects, correct?

39:31 Matt Weibel: Absolutely. A Chair of the committee is extremely powerful. You control what legislation your committee passes, for the most part. There are times when leadership has asked committees, “Hey, we need you to bring this bill through the committee, ‘cause we want it to go through the normal process, so please have a mark up.”, but otherwise, it’s basically at the discretion of the Chair, what comes through the committee, and that’s a position that you have to work up to, and maybe it’s just because you’re an expert on an issue. It matters how much money you raise for the party and how much of a team player you are. That definitely is an aspect. But yeah, it takes time to get to the top of a committee.

40:16 Aaron Powell: What’s the difference between a committee and a caucus?

40:20 Jeff Vanderslice: A committee is a formally recognized organization, essentially, within the House or the Senate. So a committee is created through a procedure, through a House resolution or a Senate resolution. It’s a formal entity that has a designated budget, designated staff and so forth. A caucus is much more informal, generally speaking, with the exception of the Senate Narcotics Caucus, or Senate Caucus on Narcotics, whatever the name is, that has essentially the same status as a committee. But what most people think of as caucuses, it’s just a group of members who have a common interest that band together and say, “We’re going to try and elevate this particular policy issue and our standing as it relates to this issue, through the formation of this caucus.”

41:24 Trevor Burrus: So, when did you get to DC, Jeff, originally?

41:28 Jeff Vanderslice: I came in 2006, originally to intern, and then came back in 2007 to begin working full-time.

41:35 Trevor Burrus: And Matt?

41:35 Matt Weibel: I started my internships in 2008 and then went full-time in 2010.

41:39 Trevor Burrus: So you guys have seen some interesting… Beginning of the Obama years, that first two years, 2008-2010, which was pretty contentious, and a lot of… Well, Rahm Emanuel, “We have the votes. F ‘em,” kind of attitude. And now we have, of course, Trump and we have the latter half of the Obama years. Has anything significantly changed in the way that Congress is behaving, or have you seen much… Do you put it to partisanship? If so, do you put it to the divided nation, to how much Republicans hated Obama, to what Obama did to force Affordable Care Act through, and the Tea Party movement, maybe, or something else?

42:18 Matt Weibel: There have been some changes with… I think the most notable change that I’ve seen is when we had a Republican take the White House. Because, like I said earlier, you could pass something in the House and say that you voted for it and campaign on it and you knew there was no danger, or hope, of the President actually signing it. People could rail against military action overseas because President Obama didn’t have the authority to do it. But now that President Trump is doing it and he’s a Republican, you hear crickets.

42:49 Matt Weibel: So that’s one of the biggest things I noticed is, maybe a lack of consistency or the true partisan nature of DC, where the letter after your name really determines whether you oppose something or support something. So, that has become clear, unfortunately. But even from 2011, when Speaker Boehner took speakership, the House process opened up more than it had been in the past. Members were allowed to offer amendments and that’s been scaled back significantly over the years, but at first, there was this desire to let members offer amendments and let the House vote on it. Let’s not control the process and prevent people from taking top votes. We should actually debate and vote on these things. And in spirit, it was there, and I think February of 2010, whenever they did an appropriations bill, HR won. They did hundreds of amendments late into the night and I think that was the most open of a process that I had seen. And it scaled back. But it’s…

43:56 Trevor Burrus: I just have to clarify this. This is just House rules or they say that members can’t offer amendments or something like this, right? But if this was… I’m thinking it’s a constitutional scholar, you’re sitting on the floor of the House and we were in 1792, and James Madison wanted to stand up and say, “I’d like to offer amendment,” and someone else tried to say, “You’re not allowed to offer amendment.” None of that is in the Constitution. You can then, “No, I’d like to take a vote about whether we can amend this piece of legislation.” And that’s how it worked in the early 1790s. What does it mean to say, “You, Mr. Amash, cannot bring this amendment.” Is it just the Speaker using his power and the House rules, is that where it comes from?

44:38 Jeff Vanderslice: On the House side, it’s the House Rules Committee which makes those determinations, on a case-by-case basis. So it’s not a standing rule of the House that no amendments will be allowed. Each individual bill that comes forward, generally with the exception of bills considered under suspension of the rules, which we can set aside, only talk about those that are considered under a House rule, those bills have a rule accompanying each piece of legislation that’s considered on the House floor, and the rule basically determines the nature of the debate. It outlines how long a debate should last for, who will control time during a general debate and what amendments are made in order, in what order those amendments should be made in order, and who will be recognized to offer those amendments. So, as a Hill staffer, if you want to… If your boss wants to offer an amendment, basically you submit those to the Rules Committee and then you plead to the Rules Committee to make that amendment in order and hope that the Chairman and the members of the committee will make a decision in your favor.

46:00 Matt Weibel: And the Constitution allows room for the House and the Senate, to set their own rules. So there’s that argument, that they pass a rules package at the beginning of each Congress and then the House Rules Committee, which is established in the rules package, will then set the time and debate process for each bill. So there is flexibility there. Though sometimes that flexibility can be annoying because your amendments don’t get voted on and the process can be closed down.

46:29 Aaron Powell: We’ve got a lot of movies and TV shows about Congress and Government and Washington, many of them very popular. What’s the biggest thing that… Say you’re watching House of Cards or you’re sitting through episodes of The West Wing, or whatever, that these shows get wrong about Congress?

46:51 Trevor Burrus: And what’s the biggest to make it right? I always say that The Veep is the biggest, the best documentary about DC ever in terms of the personalities involved.

47:00 Matt Weibel: Well, what they get right is that it is very fast-paced and hectic. When your in-session, things are moving quickly and you could be focusing your time on one topic and then quickly on another topic, and then some crisis is happening over here. I’m thinking more of The West Wing where they get this…

47:15 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, there’s a lot of walking and talking going on.

47:18 Matt Weibel: Yeah. Exactly. And, even when you’re talking to your boss about how to vote on a bill, you might have two minutes to really, fully brief the member, and that’s as you’re walking to the floor and you’re trying to dodge reporters and get into the House Chamber. But you have to have this conversation on the way, because the schedules are just very hectic by nature. So that is one thing that they get right, is that it is very, very busy, very hectic, long hours, for sure.

47:44 Jeff Vanderslice: And maybe something they don’t exactly have on point is that everyday is not quite as exciting, obviously, as maybe an episode of The West Wing, or of Veep, or House of Cards, or something like that. Yeah.

48:01 Trevor Burrus: There are some… Whether they’re at a session or they’re… Of course, a lot of different things.

48:08 Aaron Powell: Is there… The thing these shows always show is like intrigue and back stabbing. And so I get that members disagree and all that, but is it as Game of Thrones intrigue laden as these shows make it out to be or is it… You mentioned that they can go and have a drink together after having a big argument on the Hill, but do you get those kinds of factions and infighting as much as we seem to think we do?

48:35 Matt Weibel: I don’t think it’s functional enough to be that deliberate about it that you could be Game of Thrones style. I think I might still be there if it were because…

48:47 Trevor Burrus: That’s one reason why you left is that it wasn’t functional enough.

48:49 Matt Weibel: Yeah, that’s right.

48:52 Trevor Burrus: Well, okay, on that point is Congress broken in some way that… A lot of people have said this as the approval rating of… I think Eva Braun, it’s at below 10%, and it doesn’t seem to be able to get stuff done. And now, there’s always political nostalgia where someone can say, “Back in my day, Congress got stuff done and passed Medicaid and Medicare and everything.” But for long periods of time in history, Congress has been divided in different ways. But is there something different about now or maybe it’s just game as usual, that this is how this is how governing works.

49:29 Matt Weibel: I think this is how governing works. I don’t think Congress is broken. The Framers set up the House and Senate differently, but they set up the legislative process to be slow and deliberate. The Senate was designed to give the states a voice and to be the less reactionary body. And it’s proof when you see these mass shootings, or incidents, or anything in the news that the House is naturally the very reactionary body because of the two-year term moments. It’s the body that’s closest to the people because they, by their nature, except for the states that have only one member, represent less people than what the Senate will do.

50:09 Matt Weibel: So I think a slower legislative process is better and I often think you’re not getting anything done. Well, yeah. We need to get some things done but let’s make sure we do it the right way and I don’t think they’re necessarily saying the same thing I’m saying, but I prefer a slower, more deliberative, let’s not be so reactionary, let’s not do the knee-jerk reaction and pass a bill requiring some sort of adding. This was the Fix NICS Act where they wanted to add thousands of names to the firearms database. And we’ve seen this with the Do-Not Fly list, where people with the same name you’d be put on the wrong list and you weren’t told why you’re on the Do-Not Fly list, and it’s very difficult to get off. So knee-jerk reactions, they might look good. “Oh Congress did something to solve this issue.” When it comes to legislation, it has to be done very carefully.

51:08 Jeff Vanderslice: I also think that it’s easy to beat up on Congress because it often does seem dysfunctional. Different people are saying different things. There doesn’t seem to be any unified message. Unlike the presidency, generally speaking, they speak with one voice. Sometimes you get some [chuckle] dissenting voices. The Supreme Court generally the same way, or courts, generally, have an opinion. Of course there might be descents or concurring opinions and so forth, but there aren’t just the sheer number of voices. And so not only is it more difficult, actually more difficult, to reach consensus in Congress, but it also appears that way.

52:03 Jeff Vanderslice: It’s obvious that folks are on different pages. I remember going home once and someone came up to me and said, “Why can’t the two sides just get together and agree?” He said, “I’m a lawyer and whenever I have a client who has an opposing point of view, I sit down with their lawyer and the two sides sit down together and we basically meet in the middle. And that’s the solution, right?” Well, you don’t have just two sides in Congress. You have two sides plus this faction and also this faction and also this faction. There could be as many as we discussed earlier, 435 in the House and 100 in the Senate and so forth. So it is very chaotic. It is very messy. But I don’t know… Certainly there are issues with any number of areas. Some people talk about the budgetary process, that needs to be reformed and so forth. But I don’t think that means that the institution itself is broken.

[music]

53:10 Aaron Powell: Thanks for listening. Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible. If you enjoyed today’s show, please rate and review us on iTunes. And if you’d like to learn more about Libertarianism, find us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.