Deconstructing Congressional Dysfunction: A Systems-based Approach

Betsy Wright Hawkings
April 11, 2016

In my years of service on Capitol Hill, I saw first hand that Congress is full of good people driven to make our world a better place. Yet for far too many Americans, Congress is not fulfilling its responsibilities as a representative body. Why? And can it be helped?

The Democracy Fund’s Governance Initiative spent much of the past year seeking to understand how Congress could better respond to the needs and demands of citizens. To explore how we might better understand the systems that drive Congress, we began with the framing question, “How is Congress fulfilling or failing to fulfill its obligations to the American people?”

It didn’t take long to conclude that the institution is failing to do so.

Using the work of our funding partner, the Madison Initiative of the Hewlett Foundation, as a base, we pursued the broad and substantive question of what dynamics are the most significant in contributing to this dysfunction. Through that understanding, we can start to piece together what can be done to address them.

To that end, we’ve published the first public iteration of our systems map, Congress and Public Trust. We have been gathering feedback from a wide-range of stakeholders, and welcome additional thinking and ideas.

Mapping Congress and Public Trust

Last Spring, we convened a group of experts on Congress—scholars, former members of Congress and staff, and active supporters of the institution—who helped us explore the key narratives that drive the system. A ‘core story’ quickly emerged.

Core Story Loop: Congress and Public Trust

With expanded access to and use of the Internet by the public, communications to Congress have dramatically accelerated. The money infusing politics intensifies the pressures on an institution ill-prepared to process, let alone interpret and meet them, further weakening congressional capacity and reducing satisfaction of both among members and the public at large. This has contributed to trust in the institution falling to an all-time low.

With growth in dissatisfaction, some citizens “double down” to increase pressure on leaders, but the public is increasingly “opting out” and disengaging from the system—leaving only the loudest, shrillest, and most polarizing voices to feed the hyper-partisanship characterizing our current politics. Congress, conceived in Article One of our Constitution as the leading branch of our federal government, is becoming irrelevant to an increasing number of Americans.

Our Congress and Public Trust map describes the factors that are intensifying this process, inside and outside the institution. A long stretch of voter dissatisfaction and important demographic shifts within the two-party system have led to increasing intensity of competition for majorities in Congress. This historic level of competition has led the parties to stake out more stark ideological differences, driving their partisan constituencies further apart philosophically. As the parties and their constituents have fewer ideas in common, hyper-partisan behavior within the electorate and among those elected to Congress increases, winnowing the possibility for compromise and dragging down congressional function.

At the same time, the institution’s ability to formulate thoughtful, cooperative policy solutions has diminished. Some members (and many challengers) have responded to decreased public satisfaction by running against Washington, demonizing the institution, and reducing the institution’s resources to the breaking point. Loss of institutional expertise exacerbated by increased staff turnover has weakened policy-making capacity and increased the influence of outside experts, some of whom also proffer campaign donations. In fact, money flows throughout our systems map, depicted by factors with green halos. Further research through creation of another systems map focused on money and politics is forthcoming and will be aimed at deepening our understanding of this phenomenon.

Where do we go from here?

OK, you say. We know Congress isn’t working well; public dissatisfaction is at an all-time high and politics is as nasty as it has ever been. This map basically depicts a death spiral. What do we do about it?

A systems map helps identify leverage opportunities—places where smaller levels of effort lead to disproportionate impact. And leverage opportunities inform strategy. As we work to identify leverage opportunities and develop strategy, several themes are emerging.

First, despite this story of profound dysfunction, there are bright spots within the system. Many members of Congress and their staffs still possess what we call “servant’s hearts,” meaning they are driven by a call to public service. We know staff and members want to be effective, despite being stuck in a cycle of diminished resources. We also see a bright spot in the ability of outside partners to help Congress become more efficient and effective—to “work smarter.” As a result, we are thinking about how we can best support and empower servants’ hearts across the institution by more effectively enabling substantive work and deliberation.

Second, we believe that the institution’s failure to respond to increasing communication is driving public dissatisfaction and disengagement. We cannot simply invite greater public engagement without making sure Congress has strengthened its ability to respond. Without these investments first, we risk further alienating those we are trying to re-engage.

We have to ask, therefore, how we can help Congress develop more efficient tools to listen to the public, process the overwhelming amount of information, and invite more interaction from constituent groups, all while better managing the volume of communications from advocacy groups.

Third, once Congress’s capacity to listen and respond to the public is increased, can we help members and staff build a more functional culture that responds less reflexively to fear, elevating the leadership strength of members and staff? Members currently have too little incentive to act beyond partisan teamsmanship. Are there interventions we can make to help alleviate some of the political pressure members feel and encourage them to better withstand hyper-partisan heat? Can we help them find courage to cooperate across the aisle and strengthen bipartisan relationships that offer a foundation for institutional progress?

Finally, the cost of running for office has risen exponentially, driven by pressures from the political system we call the “Political-Industrial Complex.” Our map clearly illustrates how the need to raise campaign funds ripples across the congressional system. Reducing the amount of time spent by members fundraising would free them to focus more on legislation and remove some partisan invective from their messaging. We also see a potential bright spot using emerging campaign techniques that rely on cheaper media, and are considering exploring whether, if accelerated, they could disrupt the dominance of the political-industrial complex by reducing money on the demand side of its predominant business model.

We are knee deep in strategy development work and have some distance to go. We expect that as we continue to learn our analysis will evolve. In fact, learning and evolution is the essence of understanding the system, because by definition, it is always changing. It is our hope that by collaborating with partners across the field, existing grantees, and most importantly, with Congress itself, the Democracy Fund can play a constructive role in helping strengthen the institution and our democracy as a whole.

You can explore the map and its elements here. As you do, we hope you will tell us how to better describe and illuminate the dynamics of the Congress and Public Trust system. Please email us at to share your feedback or related resources.

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