As more Members of Congress announce their retirements, it’s worth analyzing the circumstances surrounding this pattern. At least 11 Senators plan to retire, and the House may have 40 to 50 open seats when all is said and done.
Of these retirements, Indiana Senator Evan Bayh’s planned departure generated significant chatter. His exit is unusual as he gave a harsh assessment of the current state of Congress: “If I could create one job in the private sector by helping to grow a business, that would be one more than Congress has created in the last six months.”
From a public relations perspective, it’s worthwhile to look beyond whether Bayh was wise or weak in leaving Congress. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson did just that, arguing that Bayh’s departure illustrates the fact that Washington “is broken because too many of our leaders confuse politics with service.”
Let’s assume Congress is indeed “broken” in this regard. When a highly visible institution is in disrepair, there are often parallels with principles of crisis management. Indeed, clients in need of crisis management often face the same problems as Congress: loss of public trust, daily maligning in the press and lack of a way forward to redemption.
A publicist would recommend steps for a company or organization to improve its image, regain customer confidence and communicate progress to stakeholders. But, can Congress – as a collective institution – use any publicity tactics to turn itself around? Maybe not, and here are five reasons why:
• Congress’s messages are constantly conflicting. Parties oppose each other on every major – and petty – political issue or initiative. It’s one thing to have thoughtful disagreements and constructive debate, but another to have knee-jerk hostility to anything the opposition proposes. Any organization facing a crisis must put aside internal differences and focus cohesively on improving its reputation, in this case that would be a civil dialogue on key policy ideas.
• Congress’s own Members are its own worst enemies. Not only do the two parties enjoy attacking each other, they also bite the hand that feeds them. The institution effectively cannibalizes its own image when Members gleefully criticize Congress’s own activities. Members are in a constant race to the bottom to bash Congress, each trying to outdo the other in embarrassing the institution. While this may be red meat for the voters back home, it does nothing to elevate Congress’s standing.
• Almost all legislative proposals are spun negative. No matter what bill is suggested, the opposition usually lines up to bash the proposal with false and dishonest criticism. This makes it hard for the public to view Congress as a productive organization.
• On its biggest bills, Congress usually has to explain the details. Major legislative efforts get overloaded in eyelid-drooping detail, making it difficult to communicate objectives. And, as the political cliché goes, if you’re explaining, you’re losing.
• Congress has no outside advocates. Can you think of a single independent-minded organization that cheers or celebrates Congress? Didn’t think so. After all, where is the upside of congratulating a political body with a public approval rating of 18%? That’s like congratulating your kid for skipping school.
No one wants major legislative proposals to pass without full and frank discussion amongst lawmakers, but when viewed this way, we can see how partisanship is more bane than benefit to Congress as an institution.