The Senate staffer’s parable


The train pulled smoothly and quietly out of Washington’s Union Station, headed for New York. Gene, an OR/MS analyst, heaved a little sigh of relief. The man seated across the aisle had shared a grimace or two with Gene in the waiting room, where a large TV was blaring one of those argumentative “news and commentary” shows. Now Gene caught the man’s eye and grinned at him. “At least we’ve gotten away from the shout TV,” Gene offered.

The man grinned back and agreed, “Yeah, I hate that stuff too. I actually follow politics pretty closely, but I’d like more light and less heat. It’s gotten really bad. By the way, my name’s Ed.”

Gene nodded. “I’m Gene. I’m pretty fed up with the way things are going politically,” he said, “but that’s partly because of what I do. I’m an analyst, supporting a federal agency, and it seems we can get less and less done because of all the political wrangling. The Republicans claimed they’d get more decisions made once they controlled both houses of Congress, but now they do, and it all seems as messed up as ever. Some of my friends claim term limits are the answer, but somehow that doesn’t sound quite right to me. What’s your take on it?”

“Term limits don’t look to me as if they’d help much,” Ed shrugged. “You’d just strengthen state and local political machines, and the bosses of those organizations would be in charge no matter who held the offices. And then no senator or representative would be in office long enough to develop his own network of supporters and donors and be able to defy the bosses. Add the huge increases in money since the Citizens United decision, and it’s not a pretty picture.

“By the way,” Ed added, “you analyst types, or at least a few of you, have been part of the problem. Did you know that?”

“How so?” Gene recoiled. “We think we’re part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

“Two words,” Ed smiled. “Political targeting, which supports machine politics. Very good analysts figure out what messages appeal to small voting blocs and how to reach just those voters. And very good analysts help both parties, every 10 years, draw congressional district boundaries. One of the few things Democrats and Republicans still cooperate quite smoothly about is drawing those districts to make the current incumbents as safe as possible. And that’s a big reason why candidates on both sides aim their campaigns toward the hard-liners in their parties, the ones who usually turn out to vote in primaries, rather than to the center.”

“Impressive commentary,” Gene smiled. “And what do you do?”

Ed said, “For many years, until my guy decided to retire a few years ago, I was a Senate staffer. One of the customers for the kind of analysis you do, you might say.”

“More impressive,” Gene said. “So what do you think we could do to make things better?”

“I don’t know how much my ideas would help,” Ed conceded, “but I do think four things would bring about a serious improvement. First, I’d like legislation that requires a larger proportion, maybe a third, of the congressional districts to be drawn to be competitive. Say, no more than a 55 percent vote for the majority party in that district in the past two or three elections. And require that they be fairly contiguous, no more of these weird districts that spread thinly all over the place to have more one-sided party affiliation in the district. A more compact district is easier for someone to campaign in and stay in touch with in person, which means more voters can get to know their candidates.

“Second,” Ed continued, “I don’t see any way to undo the Citizens United decision, but I do think we could pass legislation to require much more transparency about where the money is coming from. It’s bad enough that some big corporation could buy an election to advance its interests – that’s been happening from time to time since long before this change in the law. But if the news media were on the job, we could at least know who was buying. Now, “Citizens for Global Prosperity and Opportunity” could be a front for the oil companies or for big tobacco, but it could also be a front for the People’s Republic of China, and we’d never know! We have to fix that.

“Third,” Ed continued, “I’d restore earmarks. Congress, led mostly by the new tea-party people, voted a few years ago to stop letting senators and representatives devote a certain amount of money each term to pet projects for their districts. Let’s get rid of pork-barrel politics, right? Well, OK, but getting rid of earmarks abolished the currency in which deals used to be made. That’s a major reason why there’s so much more party-line partisanship now – you can’t gain by trading.

“And last but most important,” Ed concluded, “we have to amend the Help America Vote Act. It was supposed to make vote counts easier and cleaner, but the way it’s been implemented, it pushes states to adopt electronic voting machines with no audit trails, so it’s harder, not easier, to determine whether there was tampering! We need some standards and strict enforcement.”

“A truly fine analysis,” Gene beamed. “I’m going to try to persuade my colleagues to get involved in advocating these ideas!”

“Good, and good luck,” Ed replied. “Now all you have to do is figure out how to get heard over all the shouting.”

Doug Samuelson ( is president and chief scientist of InfoLogix, Inc., in Annandale, Va., and senior operations research analyst with Group W, in Triangle, Va.