The Danger of Ignorant Legislators

I have a friend who, about 15 years ago, went from being a high school teacher to being the chief lobbyist of a very large company. A couple weeks ago we had a conversation in which he said that if he was still teaching advanced government, now that he's actually worked up close with the legislature at both the state and federal level, he would teach it very differently. I asked him what he meant and he said, "When I taught government, I used to think that legislators are the experts, that they have access to all this information and expertise that the average citizen doesn't have, so we should just let them make the decisions. Boy, was I wrong."

What he found out was that the legislators, with only rare exceptions, are pretty much completely clueless about most issues. Sure, you might get someone on an education committee that was a school administrator, or an attorney on the judiciary committee, but for the most part the legislators are constantly voting for, and even writing, legislation on subjects they know virtually nothing about. They are given their positions by lobbyists and are in no position to evaluate the accuracy of what they're told.

Jeff Stein, the national security editor for Congressional Quarterly, has been doing a little experiment in this regard, asking various legislators and other government officials in key positions on intelligence and middle east policy if they know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite. He published his results in the New York Times and it's frightening.

At the end of a long interview, I asked Willie Hulon, chief of the bureau's new national security branch, whether he thought that it was important for a man in his position to know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. "Yes, sure, it's right to know the difference," he said. "It's important to know who your targets are."

That was a big advance over 2005. So next I asked him if he could tell me the difference. He was flummoxed. "The basics goes back to their beliefs and who they were following," he said. "And the conflicts between the Sunnis and the Shia and the difference between who they were following."

O.K., I asked, trying to help, what about today? Which one is Iran -- Sunni or Shiite? He thought for a second. "Iran and Hezbollah," I prompted. "Which are they?"

He took a stab: "Sunni."


Al Qaeda? "Sunni."


AND to his credit, Mr. Hulon, a distinguished agent who is up nights worrying about Al Qaeda while we safely sleep, did at least know that the vicious struggle between Islam's Abel and Cain was driving Iraq into civil war. But then we pay him to know things like that, the same as some members of Congress.

Take Representative Terry Everett, a seven-term Alabama Republican who is vice chairman of the House intelligence subcommittee on technical and tactical intelligence.

"Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?" I asked him a few weeks ago.

Mr. Everett responded with a low chuckle. He thought for a moment: "One's in one location, another's in another location. No, to be honest with you, I don't know. I thought it was differences in their religion, different families or something."

To his credit, he asked me to explain the differences. I told him briefly about the schism that developed after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, and how Iraq and Iran are majority Shiite nations while the rest of the Muslim world is mostly Sunni. "Now that you've explained it to me," he replied, "what occurs to me is that it makes what we're doing over there extremely difficult, not only in Iraq but that whole area."

Representative Jo Ann Davis, a Virginia Republican who heads a House intelligence subcommittee charged with overseeing the C.I.A.'s performance in recruiting Islamic spies and analyzing information, was similarly dumbfounded when I asked her if she knew the difference between Sunnis and Shiites.

"Do I?" she asked me. A look of concentration came over her face. "You know, I should." She took a stab at it: "It's a difference in their fundamental religious beliefs. The Sunni are more radical than the Shia. Or vice versa. But I think it's the Sunnis who're more radical than the Shia."

Did she know which branch Al Qaeda's leaders follow?

"Al Qaeda is the one that's most radical, so I think they're Sunni," she replied. "I may be wrong, but I think that's right."

Did she think that it was important, I asked, for members of Congress charged with oversight of the intelligence agencies, to know the answer to such questions, so they can cut through officials' puffery when they came up to the Hill?

"Oh, I think it's very important," said Ms. Davis, "because Al Qaeda's whole reason for being is based on their beliefs. And you've got to understand, and to know your enemy."

Stein also remarks on why this is important:

After all, wouldn't British counterterrorism officials responsible for Northern Ireland know the difference between Catholics and Protestants? In a remotely similar but far more lethal vein, the 1,400-year Sunni-Shiite rivalry is playing out in the streets of Baghdad, raising the specter of a breakup of Iraq into antagonistic states, one backed by Shiite Iran and the other by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states.

A complete collapse in Iraq could provide a haven for Al Qaeda operatives within striking distance of Israel, even Europe. And the nature of the threat from Iran, a potential nuclear power with protégés in the Gulf states, northern Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, is entirely different from that of Al Qaeda. It seems silly to have to argue that officials responsible for counterterrorism should be able to recognize opportunities for pitting these rivals against each other.

And he points out how the FBI reacted when it was found that their chief counterterror official was completely clueless on the subject:

My curiosity about our policymakers' grasp of Islam's two major branches was piqued in 2005, when Jon Stewart and other TV comedians made hash out of depositions, taken in a whistleblower case, in which top F.B.I. officials drew blanks when asked basic questions about Islam. One of the bemused officials was Gary Bald, then the bureau's counterterrorism chief. Such expertise, Mr. Bald maintained, wasn't as important as being a good manager.

A few months later, I asked the F.B.I.'s spokesman, John Miller, about Mr. Bald's comments. "A leader needs to drive the organization forward," Mr. Miller told me. "If he is the executive in a counterterrorism operation in the post-9/11 world, he does not need to memorize the collected statements of Osama bin Laden, or be able to read Urdu to be effective. ... Playing 'Islamic Trivial Pursuit' was a cheap shot for the lawyers and a cheaper shot for the journalist. It's just a gimmick."

No, it's not. This is important. If you don't know such basic things, you can't possibly have any understanding of the situation over there and be able to evaluate competing policy options. And this is true on every issue, not just this one. All around the country we have legislators voting on issues they have no knowledge of. We've got state congressmen voting on science standards in public schools when they couldn't even pass the mid-term in the classes whose curriculum standards they're redesigning.

And yet, the public has this anti-intellectual impulse that revolves around having "common sense", this ridiculous notion that you don't need expertise you just need "common sense". But that is, in fact, common nonsense. Having the ability to reach informed conclusions on a subject doesn't necessarily require a set of credentials, but it does require taking the time to study the issue. And those who do so are in a much better position to make such judgements, and are much more likely to reach a valid conclusion, than those who don't.

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Here we are, enmeshed in a low-grade civil war, and our fearless leaders can't tell the two sides apart. Jeff Stein has been asking assorted congressmen, intelligence analysts and counterterrorism officials a fundamental question: "Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?" Needless…
Because said officials are even more ignorant than the Pundits of the Potomac. A few months ago, Jeff Stein published an op-ed about the many officials who are charged with anti-terrorism and who also know nothing about the Middle East--to the point where they don't know if Hezbollah is Sunni or…
Update: Ed Brayton has now acknowledged the non-triviality of his original error. Bravo! A gentleman he is.End Update: Today, Ed Brayton has post where he comments on an article about Saudi ties to Sunnis in Iraq, etc. The article itself isn't interesting to me really, but what Ed did say about…
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The truly sad thing about our uninformed legislators is that there is an institution which exists for purpose of informing them. The Library of Congress.

By Sam the librarian (not verified) on 19 Oct 2006 #permalink

You know, I don't expect them to have expertise in absolutely everything they have to vote on, that would be rather impossible. But those who are on committees should have a functional working knowledge of the issues their committees work on. It would also be just grand if, before they vote on a bill, a staff member could explain what they are voting on and let them make the decision, instead of just either towing the party line or having their staff members tell them how to vote - something I am given to understand happens quite regularly. I mean their staff didn't get elected by their constituents, they have no business making the decisions.

"The basics goes back to their beliefs and who they were following," he said. "And the conflicts between the Sunnis and the Shia and the difference between who they were following."

Isn't that the kind of answer that you'd expect on a freshman essay exam from a student who wasn't clever enough to cover up the fact that he slept through the lecture and hadn't read the book?

At what point do we call a representative democracy a failure if the legislatures are uninformed on the issues they are voting on? Isn't that the whole point of a representative democracy? Don't they get paid exactly for that reason?

I have always wondered how legislatures can intelligently vote on bills that are thousands of pages long... but maybe the answer is they just don't. Or maybe their lawyers and staffers do the reading and understanding for them?

Of course, there's a whole nuther level of this problem as well. Not only are the legislators generally ignorant of the issues they're voting on, the people who vote for the legislators are even less informed.

Jordan, it's worse than that, the bills can be incomprehensible and on occasion (such as the Patriot act) they are passed without time for any one human to read the whole thing (let alone time for them to understand what they are reading).

That's why Ed has that pretty little link at the side to the "Read the Bills Act Coalition". I think everyone should click on it and talk (or send e-mail) to their elected representatives about it.

Living in a parliamentary democracy where legislators, for all their many faults, are usually bright and well versed in law (a huge proportion of British MPs were lawyers in their previous careers) and government (local government is also a common starting point for parliamentary careers), it never ceases to amaze me how many outright nuts and idiots there are in the US Congress, let alone state legislatures. The British system seems to filter most of them out, possibly because our media doesn't treat politics as a game to anything like the same extent. We still have people I would consider out there, but usually it's down to ideology or vanity rather than anything else. We tend to get people like George Galloway or Norman Tebbit, who are pretty mild by US standards, and certainly aren't stupid. You don't get anyone like Santorum or Weldon or Inhofe or Katherine Harris in the Commons, although there are a few like that in the House of Lords.

By Ginger Yellow (not verified) on 19 Oct 2006 #permalink

You don't get anyone like Santorum or Weldon or Inhofe or Katherine Harris in the Commons, although there are a few like that in the House of Lords.

Ah, but we do still have a bit of a problem with people in the Commons voting the way the Whips (enforcers for the party leaderships) tell them to. The fact that our rushed or badly thought-out legislation is voted through by people who know enough to have doubts about it (as they usually tell us later when the excrement hits the fan...) - and the sight of the unelected House of Lords currently doing a much better job of pointing out these things - is not exactly comforting.

One of the biggest flaws in the American system of government is that for a person to climb to the top, he or she must almost always be a professional politician. Meaning that he or she is an expert only in what it takes to get elected to office. And that means *no* expertise in anything else. What credentials does a George W. Bush or a Bill Clinton have to back up a claim to take a place as a world leader? Nothing more than a string of previous successful campaigns, leading to terms in office which are largely spent taking the necessary actions to be reelected or to be elected to the next post in the climb to the top.

What's truly sad on a personal level is that I've become so cynical about all of this. I *know* my congressmen are ignoramuses, and I've given up on ever seeing any real change. I spend my preparation for each election trying to figure out who to vote against; it's been years since I felt there was anyone running for national office whom I could actually vote *for*. Now *that's* depressing.


What's amazing is how this parallels the scientific ignorance demonstrated by anti-evolution legislators. It's like an utter lack of knowledge about a topic is prerequisite for our leaders to boldly and shrilly hold forth on that topic. Sigh.

I don't think that legislators are stupid exactly. Or even uneducated. I've watched too much C-SPAN to dismiss them as cretins. And on occasion I've seen some legislators demonstrate the qualities that are needed in a representative of the people, namely a willingness to be educated about a topic and a dogged determination to get to the truth. (Witness the way John Kerry--a man of whom I am no fan--set about unraveling the puzzle of international finance when he went after the BCCI.)

However, most of the time, it seems like a qualification for being a politican is a willingness to ignore the little voice that tells most people not to spout off nonsense when they don't know what they're talking about. It's the same tenor as a high school student bluffing his way through an essay contest, raised to a--barely--adult level, but the stakes are much, much higher. You'd think that if you were responsible for spending billions of tax dollars, for ensuring the safety of 300 million people, for managing a monumental bureaucracy responsible for everything from food safety to Medicare, you'd want to be educated in whatever your little area happens to be in order to make intelligent decisions. But I guess that's asking too much.

By Andrew Wyatt (not verified) on 19 Oct 2006 #permalink

One thing I think we should also be careful of is the danger of intelligent legislators. There are people who believe that if we just get the "right" people in charge everything would be fine. But even smart people cannot manage something as complex as an economy.

What credentials does a George W. Bush or a Bill Clinton have to back up a claim to take a place as a world leader? Nothing more than a string of previous successful campaigns, leading to terms in office which are largely spent taking the necessary actions to be reelected or to be elected to the next post in the climb to the top.
Wasn't Clinton a Rhodes Scholar, Lawyer, & Law Professor?


You're right, of course, that it is utopianism to assume that elevating the perfect technocrats to positions of power will make Everything Right Forever. However, I think American government at this point could stand a few more capable technocrats and a few less career politicians. We're not in any danger of skewing towards knowledge rather than ignorance. (If only an overabundance of educated politicians were the worst problem we were facing...)

I don't even have a problem with career politicians per se as long as A) the politician is willing to admit to their own limitiations; B) the politician listens intently to their expert advisors and internalizes their advice; C) the politician selects advisors that are intelligent and experts in their fields. The rub seems to be that no one can elected by doing A). Every politician--and especially every President--gets to where they are by claiming, explicitly or implicitly, that they are a divine gift of wisdom, will, and whatnot, bestowed on the People by Providence. It's such malarky. I can even put up with it if B) and C) are executed well, but Bill Clinton seems to have had the most recent success with those, and even he was hit (Robert Reich) and miss (Janet Reno).

By Andrew Wyatt (not verified) on 19 Oct 2006 #permalink


I am a Clinton fan, and even I am willing to admit that he was as much a career politician as a human being can be. He got the Presidential bug when he visited the White House in high school and never had a single job other than a stint as a law professor between graduation and running for Congress. The guy groomed himself from puberty to occupy the Oval Office.

By Andrew Wyatt (not verified) on 19 Oct 2006 #permalink

Andrew -

I am not a Clinton fan at all but I am willing to admit that in the process of grooming himself for the oval office, he did in fact get a hell of an education for it. The only other president we have had, in my memory (I am only thirty), who had resonable qualifications to actually be president, was Bush 41. Reagan certainly wasn't qualified and I think it is painfully obvious that Junior is even less so.

I think that one way to start breaking the cycle of incompetence in our legislature is publicly financed campaigns. I also think that a ban on political parties and their enforcers would really make a huge difference. Forcing politicians to run and stand on their own platform would not remove every kook from office, but it would at least force them to justify their voting, beyond towing the party line.

The problem of incompetence in our legislature is not a simple issue with easy resolution. It will take a lot of different ideas working in concert to slowly change it. But partisan politics fosters an environment where politicians are little more than professional campaigners. I am actually not averse to the idea of professional politicians - if they are actually politicians and not just the aforementioned pro-campaigners, a distinction that, at least in the states is a hard one to make.

It goes back to the old dilemma: a country that won World War II because of science and rationalism, that won the Cold War because that period coincided with rule by a bureaucratic class that consisted of the best and the brightest, that developed the atom bomb, that put a man on the moon, that built the information age infrastructure, that sweeped the science Nobels this year (and dominate it most years), that has the best universities and is doing more to advance civilization than any other country, is at the same time ruled by a completely ignorant and incompetant political class who win elections by appealing to the most ignorant and reactionary people in society (and that in a society that has far more ignorant and reacionary people than it really should, given everything else). How can a nation of such talent and ingenuity be ruled by such mediocre, and even downright stupid or otherwise reprehensible, people?

What credentials does a George W. Bush or a Bill Clinton have to back up a claim to take a place as a world leader?

Well, Clinton a Rhodes scholar and has a law degree from Yale.

Chuck said -
How can a nation of such talent and ingenuity be ruled by such mediocre, and even downright stupid or otherwise reprehensible, people?

Because, few people with talent and ingenuity have the patience to deal with the base mentality of the common, American, professional campaigner.

Here is one example from Georgia:

This last year the Georgia legislature passed a law making it a crime for any convicted sex-criminal to live near a "school board designated bus stop". The only problem (okay not the only problem), school boards don't designate bus stops, district administrators do. When passing the law, no legislator thought to ask the public school system about bus stops.

This law also exposed every district to lawsuits. If the board didn't state to designate bus stops, they were going to be sued by groups obsessed about sex-crime for violating the law. And when board did designate bus stops, they were going to be sued by civil liberties groups. I think there are several lawsuits going on right now in georgia.

One of the main problems with the current crop of politicians running the country, which has not been addressed in this thread, is that most of them are lawyers. In particular, there is a conspicuous lack of technically trained people (e.g. scientists and engineers) holding public office. Yet these same legislators are required to vote on legislation, much of which involves technical knowledge in order to understand it. There is no way that such legislators can understand the nuances of legislation involving reasarch arms of the Government (e.g. EPA, DOE, military R&D, NASA, etc.). This problem is exacerbated when the executive branch appoints political hacks to oversee the operations of these agencies (e.g. Mr. Deutsch at NASA). Then of course, the Congress shot itself in the foot in 1995 by abolishing the Office of Technology Assessment, which was the only source of technical information available to it (much, if not most of Congressional staffing is devoted not to providing advice to individual members but to getting them reelected). This is all part and parcel of the current poisonous, partisan atmosphere in Washington, which is due to the two major parties playing to their base, rather than attempting to attract voters from the center. It would appear that the only way these problems can be solved is for the various legislatures to attract members from a broader base of the population.

SLC said -
It would appear that the only way these problems can be solved is for the various legislatures to attract members from a broader base of the population.

I would argue that rather, they need to have science and technology advisers to help them understand these issues. The problems with simply trying to encourage those with technical expertise to run for office is that first, few of them would have patience with the proccess. The other problem would be a lack of expertise in fields other than their own limited scope. I certainly think we need to draw from a larger pool of the population, but I don't see that as solving the problem of no expertise in fields they are required to make laws about.

It does have me thinking, though, that legislative staffers could and should be drawn from a wider pool, including recent grads or students, with science and tech knowlege. I think it would both, provide their senator or congressman with better understanding of the nuance involved and possibly convince them to run for office themselves someday.