Congressional Debates Need Facts, Not Spin

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006
Congress likes to think of itself as "the world's greatest deliberative body." If ever there is a time for it to live up to this self-image, it is now. 

In 2007, our senators and House members face grueling — and long overdue — debates on the Iraq War, fighting terrorism as a free society, enhancing economic chances for working families, improving the long-term outlook for Social Security, policing their own ethical behavior, and other knotty issues. 

This is as it should be: Congress is where our diverse nation is supposed to come together to discuss and thoroughly air the challenges we face. 

So it was dismaying to read a recent study by two respected political scientists stating that thoughtful congressional debate, rooted in facts, is actually hard to come by. Legislators often resort to "half-truths, exaggeration, selective use of facts, and, in a few instances, outright falsehoods," write Gary Mucciaroni of Temple University and Paul J. Quirk of the University of British Columbia in their book, Deliberative Choices: Debating Public Policy in Congress. 

This is not reassuring at this especially troubled moment in our history. 
We all know that Congress doesn't always live up to the lofty standards we would wish. Debate on the House and Senate floors can get long-winded, repetitious, and perfunctory. But the Mucciaroni-Quirk study probes deeper than that, exploring how truthful and accurate were claims made during 43 separate debates between 1995 and 2000 on three key issues of that time: welfare reform, estate-tax reduction, and telecommunications deregulation. 

Their conclusion was that in debates, only about a quarter of the claims made by members of Congress were supported by the facts, with the other three-fourths either unsupported or only partially supported by the relevant evidence. 

In addition, "When others exposed speakers' claims as weak, the speakers in almost every case ignored the criticism only to reassert the dubious claims." This brings to mind the infamous comment by Rep. Earl Landgrebe of Indiana during the Watergate debate: "My mind is made up," he said. "Don't confuse me with the facts." 

Even worse, the book concludes, "Congressional debate is typically no better than moderately informed. Legislators frequently assert claims that are inaccurate or misleading, and reassert them after they have been effectively refuted.... In a typical debate, the best that Congress achieves is a roughly even balance of fact and fiction." 

I suppose this "facts don't matter" approach might sometimes be expected on the campaign trail. There, unfortunately, we have become accustomed to half-truths, distortions, and falsehoods, and voters have had to learn to take campaign statements with a grain of salt. 

But when Congress is in the process of making decisions on key issues confronting the nation, is it really okay with the American people that its members deal with each other in a straightforward and truthful manner only half the time? I doubt it. Members of Congress simply must do better. 

There are some internal changes in the way Congress operates that would improve the situation, and Mucciaroni and Quirk suggest a few. They would extend the time for debate, for instance, noting that members can, indeed, catch misleading statements by others and correct them on the floor. Congress might also reduce the number of omnibus bills, which make it difficult, if not impossible, to delve into the details of what the legislation would actually accomplish. 

And Congress should restore the central role once played by standing committees, whose members tend to have the expertise to understand the issues they confront. Moreover, committees usually serve to refine and focus debates on the core issues, making it easier both for the American public and for other members of Congress to follow and take part in them. 

In the end, though, I think there's no substitute for members and staff to become more serious and more careful about how they prepare for and conduct debates. They are, after all, making the nation's laws, not engaging in some effort to score debating points. 

The American people have an important role to play in this. They must hold their representatives in Congress to a high standard. They must insist that the decisions of Congress be rooted in solid analysis and factual information. Part of the intense dislike Americans have developed for Congress in recent years stems from disappointment in the quality of its political discourse and the prevalence of spin, distortion, and partisan mockery. 

As the new Congress takes up a long list of formidable public policy challenges, it could go a long way toward restoring public confidence by debating them carefully, fully, and accurately, with respect not only for the truth, but also for its own role in making the laws of the nation. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)