The Preference-Action Disparity in Congress

The United States Congress has long been noted for its abysmal approval rating. Gallup’s most recent polling places Congressional approval at a dismal 21%. Sadly enough, this is actually a 3% improvement when compared to Gallup’s polling over the previous month. It is safe to assume that some of this disapproval derives from a broader sense of antigovernmental skepticism firmly entrenched within American culture, but much of it derives from the Preference-Action Disparity found within the halls of Congress.

In every realm of public policy lies a major disconnect between the desires of the American people and the actions of Congress. This claim is substantiated by extensive polling, and reflects the broader failure of American representative democracy when practiced in its current form. Many factors contribute to this disconnect, including congressional obstructionism, a lack of primary challenges, and most of all, the corpocratic tumor firmly nestled in the core of American campaign finance.

A Canyon Sized Gap

Name a policy issue and your position on this issue. It is almost a guarantee that current American policy is directly juxtaposed to your position, and has failed to take decisive action on the issue for at least a decade. 

Starting with domestic policy, Congress has failed to enact substantial criminal justice, drug, healthcare, or climate reform in accord with the desires of the American people. With regards to criminal justice reform, a recent AP-NORC poll shows that 94% of Americans support some form of criminal justice reform. This overwhelming majority was able to develop despite the ratification of The First Step Act in 2018. While The First Step Act ushered in a welcome array of reforms, its substance is milquetoast in nature, and it fails to provide adequate police reform. While a majority of Americans support mandatory body cams, standards for the use of force, and penalizing officers for racially biased policing, Congress has remained largely silent, even in the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Drug policy works in tandem with criminal justice policy. Despite substantial progress on the state and municipal level, Congress has yet to enact serious federal drug policy reform in nearly three decades. 

A 2019 poll conducted by The Pew Research Center showed that 67% of Americans support the legalization of marijuana on the federal level. Every generation besides The Silent Generation overwhelmingly supports legalization. Unfortunately, our Congress’ most powerful members are a part of this generation, and maintain the same archaic views on marijuana as the Reagan administration. In the Executive Branch, these views are generally consistent, as no administration has had the fortitude to remove marijuana from the FDA’s Schedule I list. What is most frustrating however, is the Democratic Party’s refusal to back the full legalization of marijuana, despite 76% of Democrats being in favor of legalization. An amendment to make marijuana legalization a part of the 2020 Democratic Party platform lost in a 50-106 vote, a vote count that lies statistically inverse to the will of the people.

With regards to foreign policy, the polls are actually a mixed bag. According to Axios, a majority of Americans believe that American military superiority and stationing troops overseas makes the U.S. safer overall. However, the same poll found that only 27% of Americans believe military intervention makes the U.S. safer. On the other hand, a poll conducted by The Charles Koch Institute and the Center for National Interest found that 79% of Americans would prefer increased domestic spending to increased defense spending. The same study found that only 26% of Americans want to prioritize military power over diplomacy, and that a majority of Americans believe we spend less on the military than we actually do.

While the initial poll indicates an American populace in favor of military sustenance, the latter poll shows a populace at odds with military excess and hegemony. It also reveals a populace unaware of the scale with which the American military is funded. If a majority of Americans knew that the U.S. spends more on defense than the next ten countries combined, it is safe to assume that the results of the aforementioned polls would be drastically different. Nonetheless, a Gallup poll found that 50% of Americans believe U.S. military spending is, “about right.” The same poll found that 31% of Americans believe the U.S. is spending too much, while 17% believe it is spending too little. This is all to say that an increase in military spending is an overwhelmingly unpopular policy position. However, this has not stopped the Trump administration – and Congress at large – from increasing military spending by over $100 billion over the last 4 years. What’s most frustrating about these increases is the complicity that Democratic members of Congress have shown, having allowed the 2020 budget to pass through the house on a 377-48 vote.

A Bridge Very Few Can Cross

What lies at the heart of the Preference-Action Disparity is the fundamental fracture of American democracy. Over time, the U.S. has gradually descended into oligarchy, cemented by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. By equating money with speech, and corporations with people, the American selectorate dramatically shifted. Politicians no longer had to please their constituents to stay in power, instead relying on wealthy donors that would fund their campaigns in exchange for policy favors.

This shift also forms a feeling of despondency amongst concerned constituents. Every American should be equally entitled and able to run for office if they choose. However, if one’s incumbent representative is well-funded by a bevvy of donors, a variety of capable, in-touch constituents may prefer to avoid the potential embarrassment of a loss. Luckily, this cycle was challenged with the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018, but nevertheless persists.

Why go through the trouble of organizing a grassroots movement when you can make a few calls and secure all the advertising money you could ever ask for? Why craft a platform that prioritizes dramatic policy changes when you can do the bare minimum and raise more money for it? This incentive structure allows for a climate of dependable mediocrity in Congress. A climate cemented by archaic congressional procedure that subverts democracy itself.

The filibuster is considered to be, “The Soul of The Senate,” by some. Previously, this characterization was understandable, as the filibuster was often lauded as a political act of endurance and courage. Nonetheless, its utility has been abused, allowing for the Senate to coast through their congressional terms devoid of any of the repercussions that arise from actually believing in something. In its current form, the filibuster allows for any Senator to speak for an unlimited amount of time unless 60% of the Senate votes in favor of cloture. 60% of the Senate hardly agrees on anything – besides increasing the military budget – so this essentially renders the filibuster as a tool of obstruction.

Regardless of what the House does, Senate procedure allows for savvy Senators to refrain from accomplishing anything. An abstinence of action is even more frustrating than Congress failing to consider the will of the people. It also shows that the divide does not solely lie in policy specifics, it lies in whether or not Congress wants to do anything at all, an even more disheartening reality.