It’s not a secret that of all the major institutions in this country, Americans have by far the least amount of confidence in one of them: Congress.
According to a Gallup 2018 poll, just 11% of Americans have a high level of confidence in Congress. When you compare this confidence level to other major American institutions such as organized religion, the Supreme Court, organized labor, big business, public schools, newspapers, the military, the presidency, the medical system, banks, the police, and even the criminal justice system, you’ll find all these other institutions range between 23% and 74% in Americans’ confidence.
Clearly, Congress is the most disliked institution in the United States of America today. Why is that?
An Old Problem Needs a New Solution
This might seem like a banally obvious question, but I don’t think the real reason is widely agreed upon. This is not a 2018 phenomenon, nor a Trump presidency phenomenon. There have been no significant rule changes preventing Congress from doing its job. And there isn’t one major event that can be pointed to as the cause here.
To answer the question, I think one must look closer at the source of the problem; we must look at the actual individuals who are in Congress.
When you see a great baseball team, a great school, or a great business, you recognize the impressive individuals that comprise those various entities. This logic matters especially for government. Every great baseball team has great players and coaches. Every great school has great students and teachers. Every great business has great employees and chief executives. A great, or even just average, Congress requires better members of Congress.
Now, let’s get even more specific. What does it mean to have “better” members of Congress? Why is the average member of Congress contributing to its dismal level of perceived confidence? Is it that the current members of Congress are corrupt? Unintelligent? Self-serving? Is the “system” impossible to work in?
One can definitely find some evidence of these suggestions, but I believe the problem to be more encompassing. Most of the members of Congress are simply not doing what we elected them to do: solve problems.
At the end of the day, we don’t just elect people to merely represent us. We elect politicians to represent us and to find solutions to the myriad problems that currently afflict our country.
Yes, some problems are challenging to solve, such as eradicating disease, achieving 100% sustainable energy, and preventing all gun deaths, etc. But some issues are low-hanging fruit and, frankly, have bipartisan solutions such as passing a basic infrastructure bill, requiring background checks for gun purchases, supporting STEM education, incentivizing entrepreneurship, lowering the cost of drugs, and closing tax loopholes, etc.
Naturally, some might now ask, “Why aren’t politicians solving problems?” That is the critical question here, and my theory is simple: most politicians do not want to solve problems or are utterly incapable of solving problems because they are not problem solvers.
What did they do before getting elected?
To get an understanding of what I mean here, let’s look at our politicians’ interests and skillsets; let’s take a look at where they chose to work before their current roles. In the current 115th Congress, three of the most common professional backgrounds for members of Congress were: law, academia, and other forms of public service/politics.
Half of all senators worked in law before politics. About one-fifth of Congress worked in academia. And about 45% of all members of Congress worked in other forms of public service or politics. Although there are overlaps, combined, the majority of our members of Congress have worked in these three fields before their current roles.
Of these professions, none of them are necessarily known for being the country’s most talented problem solvers. Although not true for all, many lawyers are all too often trained or encouraged to “win” against their opponent and fight the other side.
Academicians, as vital as they are to our education system, are known for learning a great deal of theory on a particular topic, teaching it, and assessing their students’ ability to remember it. And, unfortunately, many politicians simply come from politics itself whether through nepotism, connections, or a lack of desire to work in the private sector economy.
This is not to say all lawyers, academicians, and public servants are unnecessary or poor problem solvers. We as a society obviously cannot function without upholding the law, educating the next generation, or governing ourselves.
However, some people have become comfortable in these fields because it is easy to avoid solving society’s truly difficult problems. What one does (or does not do) in their previous job, is likely to lead to what one does (or does not do) in their subsequent job. That’s why I believe so many lawyers, academicians, and public servants run for Congress: it’s a natural fit for their mentality and skillset. Congress is a place with low expectations for solving truly difficult problems.
Business People Solve Problems
Now, off the top of your head, what professions would you think tend to attract the country’s most talented problem solvers? I’d say that common answers would likely be doctors, engineers, computer programmers, and entrepreneurs. These professions all deal with very high levels of ambiguity and require extensive teamwork, effort, and skill to solve some of society’s most difficult problems to create value for us all. How many doctors, engineers, programmers, and entrepreneurs go into politics? Not many.
Today, there are just 21 doctors, 8 engineers and 6 software company execs in the 115th Congress. Combined, that is 35 individuals, or, about 6% of Congress. It’s not as easy to identify entrepreneurs/business owners, but I was able to confirm 19 of them for a total of less than 4%.
Together, all doctors, engineers, software programmers/execs, and entrepreneurs/business owners account for at most 10% of Congress today.
One can reasonably assume, conversely to my prior point, that those who work in problem solving-oriented fields avoid politics because Congress is not a natural fit for their mentality or skillset. Why go somewhere where you’ll be surrounded by those incapable or unmotivated to solve problems? The lack of problem solvers is a problem.
I believe this to be a critical and central issue to many of our other political afflictions today. If you want a better baseball team, draft better hitters. If you want a better university, recruit better students. If you want a better company, hire better employees.
If we are truly frustrated with the lack of problem-solving today - and if we genuinely want a more effective government, but we are not sure what we can do about it, the one thing I know is that we must elect better problem solvers.