Congress’ knowledge deficit renders it powerless
Mills is associate vice president of policy at the R Street Institute, a nonpartisan and pro-free-market public policy research organization.
"Knowledge is power." The phrase is attributed to Francis Bacon, the so-called father of modern science, who believed that scientific knowledge enables the mastery of nature and the "relief of man's estate." Although Bacon himself was interested primarily in scientific and technological progress, the connection between knowledge and power is also a political problem — and one that is particularly pertinent today.
Knowledge has always been necessary for making laws and political decisions. But in modern times, scientific knowledge in particular has become indispensable for governing — and not only because modern states make decisions about overtly scientific matters like research funding, environmental protection and space exploration. Administering public policies, from health care and welfare to regulation and taxation, relies on various types of scientific knowledge. And it is, for the most part, carried out by executive agencies staffed by experts.
Over time, such agencies have acquired legislative-like powers — the authority, in effect, to make law by interpreting deliberately vague or broad statutes. One rationale for Congress' delegation of this power to the executive branch has to do with knowledge: Congress lacks the requisite expertise, whereas executive agencies do not. This is in part Congress' own fault, since it has, over time, depleted its own in-house expertise — by, for example, reducing expert staff and dismantling the Office of Technology Assessment. The imbalance of knowledge between Congress and executive agencies leads to an imbalance of power and vice versa.
This is problematic on three counts.
- The Constitution empowers Congress, not the executive branch, to make laws. It may not be realistic to expect Congress to function without some amount of delegation but, at the very least, Congress needs sufficient expertise — knowledge — to conduct meaningful oversight of the agencies to which this power is delegated.
- Congress is the Constitution's most democratic branch. Its members are elected representatives whereas, aside from the president, the executive branch is comprised of political appointees and unelected civil servants and contractors. Congress is therefore more directly responsive to democratic pressures. This arrangement may not always issue in technically sound policy, but it does allow for a higher degree of accountability.
- There is good reason to think that, on the whole, knowledge is more effectively used for political ends when it is not insulated from democratic pressures. Thinkers across the political spectrum have noted the temptation of modern nation states to instrumentalize knowledge for their own ends — and the problems that can result.
On the left, James C. Scott and Michel Foucault have pointed to the ways in which modern states produce knowledge in order to exert control over their populations. Without knowledge — including demographic, health and geographic data, as well as information about the flows of goods and people — the state is blind and unable to exercise its power. Yet such knowledge inevitably simplifies or even falsifies reality, and so can undermine the state's attempt to exert control. Sometimes the results are disastrous.
On the right, Michael Polanyi and Friedrich von Hayek have argued that central planning requires the planners to possess a knowledge of the vast array of complex systems that comprise the modern economy. Yet such knowledge is by its nature dispersed across these systems, existing only in decentralized form among the participants and practitioners. Thus centralized planning will fail because the planners will always lack adequate knowledge of how socioeconomic systems function.
The upshot of such arguments is not so much that the government cannot or should not rely on expert knowledge, but that attempts to insulate such knowledge from democratic accountability ends badly. We can attenuate this temptation by equipping Congress with more and better knowledge. By shifting knowledge back into the legislative branch, we can help shift power back to the people and their representatives.
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In a partisan vote on an issue that once was bipartisan, House Democrats pushed through legislation Friday that would restore a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act passed the House 228-187, with all Democrats voting for the bill and all but one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, voting against it.
The bill faces virtually no chance of being considered in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Broadcasters are pushing back against the Federal Communications Commission after the agency made clear it wants broader public disclosure regarding TV political ads.
With the 2020 election less than a year away and political TV ads running more frequently, the FCC issued a lengthy order to clear up any ambiguities licensees of TV stations had regarding their responsibility to record information about ad content and sponsorship. In response, a dozen broadcasting stations sent a petition to the agency, asking it to consider a more narrow interpretation of the law.
This dispute over disclosure rules for TV ads comes at a time when digital ads are subject to little regulation. Efforts to apply the same rules for TV, radio and print advertising across the internet have been stymied by Congress's partisanship and the Federal Election Commission being effectively out of commission.
Laura Williamson says her career was shaped by growing up in North Carolina, which she describes as being historically at the center of the best and worst of American democracy. She spent seven years working with young people at progressive groups and got a master's in public affairs at Princeton before joining Demos in the summer of 2018. The think tank aims to combat "threats to democracy, racial equity and economic inclusion" and as a senior policy analyst she's focused on voter registration, voting rights, money in politics and civic participation. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What's democracy's biggest challenge, in 10 words or less?
Abolishing all disenfranchisement schemes and achieving an inclusive, multiracial democracy.
Describe your very first civic engagement.
Testifying at the North Carolina General Assembly against cuts to funding for vocational education. The woodworking classes I took throughout high school were among the most formative of my public school education, so as a high school senior I advocated for their continued funding to lawmakers in Raleigh.
What was your biggest professional triumph?
It's actually a triumph-in-progress. At Demos, we are privileged to work with powerful grassroots leaders redefining democracy and pushing the reform conversation across the country. Alongside these Inclusive Democracy Project leaders we are dreaming and scheming about what it would take to build a truly inclusive democracy — without limiting ourselves by what's perceived as politically feasible or reasonable — and to chart a radical reform agenda that meets the challenge. Our agenda is in progress and, like all real victories, is benefitting from the efforts of many smart and talented people. Stay tuned, it'll be ready for public consumption soon!
And your most disappointing setback?
They have always come after I've not listened well enough, have brought too much ego and taken things too personally, or not followed my gut about when a process or decision felt off.
How does your identity influence the way you go about your work?
I'm from North Carolina, where we pioneered multiracial, pro-justice fusion politics during Reconstruction, civil disobedience during the civil rights movement and franchise-expanding voting reforms since the 1990s. More recently, we have also been home to the vanguard of voter suppression and other democracy stifling tactics since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. I stand on the shoulders of giants and against the abdication of our identity as democracy leaders. I also do this work because, as a white woman, I know the exclusion of entire communities from our democracy was — and is still — led by my people and, often, in my name. I work every day to undo that legacy and ongoing reality.
What's the best advice you've ever been given?
Learn to simultaneously practice patience and show up with urgency in all the work I do.
Create a new flavor for Ben & Jerry's.
Impeaches and Cream
West Wing or Veep?
West Wing — for the sometimes-too-earnest belief that government can be a force for good, not the centrist politics!
What's the last thing you do on your phone at night?
Turn on do not disturb.
What is your deepest, darkest secret?
I'm deeply terrified by karaoke.
Lightman is a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.
With the 2020 election less than a year away, Facebook is under fire from presidential candidates, lawmakers, civil rights groups and even its own employees to provide more transparency on political ads and potentially stop running them altogether.
Meanwhile, Twitter has announced that it will not allow any political ads on its platform.
Modern-day online ads use sophisticated tools to promote political agendas with a high degree of specificity.
I have closely studied how information propagates through social channels and its impact on political messaging and advertising.
Looking back at the history of mass media and political ads in the national narrative, I think it's important to focus on how TV advertising, which is monitored by the Federal Communications Commission, differs fundamentally with the world of social media.