Congress Too “Credentialed”?

There’s a difference between being smart, which I’ll define as having a broad range of knowledge and the capacity for rational thought, and intelligent in a particular subject, such as the person who is a brilliant physicist but can’t figure out how to change a tire. Both of them might have a college diploma, even a graduate degree or more, because smart people are more likely to obtain degrees.

It’s not the degree that makes them smart, although it might reflect their being better educated in a particular subject because they’ve studied it in depth. One of the constant arguments about lawyers is that a lot of us aren’t all that bright, which is true, though most of us have a functional knowledge of how law works. This is sufficiently specialized knowledge to distinguish lawyers from non-lawyers when it comes to legal matters. It’s not that non-lawyers aren’t just as smart, if not smarter, than lawyers, but they lack the foundation necessary to understand law. And since Congress does law, that knowledge can come in handy.

Over the last few decades, Congress has diversified in important ways. It has gotten less white, less male, less straight — all positive developments. But as I was staring at one of the many recent Senate hearings, filled with the usual magisterial blustering and self-important yada yada, it dawned on me that there’s a way that Congress has moved in a wrong direction, and become quite brazenly unrepresentative.

No, it’s not that the place seethes with millionaires, though there’s that problem too.

It’s that members of Congress are credentialed out the wazoo. An astonishing number have a small kite of extra initials fluttering after their names.

If this sounds like the opening speaker at a Trump rally, that’s because the right and left share a basic failing in grasping logical fallacies. Correlation does not imply causation.

According to the Congressional Research Service, more than one third of the House and more than half the Senate have law degrees. Roughly a fifth of senators and representatives have their master’s. Four senators and 21 House members have M.D.s, and an identical number in each body (four, 21) have some kind of doctoral degree, whether it’s a Ph.D., a D.Phil., an Ed.D., or a D. Min.

But perhaps most fundamentally, 95 percent of today’s House members and 100 percent of the Senate’s have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Yet just a bit more than one-third of Americans do.

This 95% number is surprising. Not that it’s so high, but that it’s not 100%. Getting a bachelor’s degree just isn’t that big a deal anymore, and not to knock public education, but is someone who maxed out with a high school degree sufficiently knowledgeable to vote on laws? Or is it the other way around?

“This means that the credentialed few govern the uncredentialed many,” writes the political philosopher Michael J. Sandel in “The Tyranny of Merit,” published this fall.

There’s an argument to be made that we should want our representatives to be a highly lettered lot. Lots of people have made it, as far back as Plato.

The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be any correlation between good governance and educational attainment that Sandel can discern.

Jennifer Senior then goes into Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest,” about how many Harvard Ph.D.s does it take to change a lightbulb in Hanoi, and from there to the mess made of our economy, environment, incarceration rate and inequality. And unironically, she blames the Democrats for what Sandel calls “the valorization of credentialism.”

Both parties are to blame for this. But it was Democrats, Sandel wrote, who seemed especially bullish on the virtues of the meritocracy, arguing that college would be the road to prosperity for the struggling. And it’s a fine idea, well-intentioned, idealistic at its core. But implicit in it is also a punishing notion: If you don’t succeed, you have only yourself to blame. Which President Trump spotted in a trice.

A recurring theme here is that if you ask the wrong question, refuse to consider what the real cause of a problem is, you end up with the wrong solution. Sandel has a point that credentials aren’t the equivalent of being smart, and indeed, become less so daily given the intellectual poverty of increasingly woke higher education combined with the specialization in such utilitarian subjects as grievance studies.

But Senior’s complaint isn’t that credentials alone fail to serve as a proxy for being smart or possessing any of the vague characteristics that are used to justify idiosyncratic expectations and demands, like justice, morality, decency, equity and dignity.

It’s hard to say whether more socioeconomic diversity would guarantee differences in policy or efficiency. But it could do something more subtle: Rebuild public trust.

“There are people who look at Congress and see the political class as a closed system,” Carnes told me. “My guess is that if Congress looked more like people do as a whole, the cynical view — Oh, they’re all in their ivory tower, they don’t care about us — would get less oxygen.”

Senior makes a point, though it’s not the one she was trying to make. If credentials alone have failed to correlate to good governance, that doesn’t mean lack of credentials, “Congress looked more like people do,” would produce better governance. The fact that most people are uncredentialed doesn’t make them smart, and their inability to reason logically doesn’t make illogical assumptions a viable “guess.” Is that how government should be run, by “I dunno, I guess”?

The nature of a republic is that the people elect representatives to Congress because they believe they will serve their interests. If we elect people who do a lousy job of it, that’s not exactly a reason to make them more like the lowest common denominator of smart. As I keep admonishing, the alternative to bad isn’t necessarily good; it can always get worse.

The road to worse is dumb arguments like this which conflate credentials with smart, qualified elected officials who also possess integrity and the sense of duty to put the welfare of a nation ahead of party and self-interest. Whether they come from Harvard or Nassau County Community College is up to the voters, and a few carpenters in Congress would probably be a huge boon to decent craftsmanship. But if they can’t grasp law, governance or, say, economics, they’re not qualified for the job. On the other hand, a few letters after their name without integrity isn’t good enough either. Nobody gets a diploma from Harvard in integrity.

14 thoughts on “Congress Too “Credentialed”?

  1. KP

    You mean, the people are too stupid to vote for the right people??

    Sounds like you need my favourite Govt, twice the number of members selected randomly by lottery to govern for that term.. If you can trust yourself to know what’s good for the country, why not your neighbours? They couldn’t do any worse!

    Surely the last person you want in power is someone who wants the power!

    1. SHG Post author

      Why am I unsurprised that you couldn’t resist the impulse to comment? Did you know that all the kids at Lake Wobegon are above average?

  2. Kathryn M. Kase

    Of all the complaints I have about Congress, that it is “too credentialed” isn’t even on the list.

  3. Grant

    Congressional incompetence is the logical result of a time deficit.

    Law drafting and parliamentary skills are specialized skills that you don’t use many places besides a legislature. John Oliver did a segment where he explained that congress spends 25-50% of their time soliciting donations (and the congressperson he interviewed noted this includes 4 hours per day telemarketing). This is just fundraising, not all the other activities they do besides being a legislator.

    So congress people have limited time to practice their skills. One would not logically respond to this by making congresspeople less educated.

    Tongue-in-cheek, one could respond to this by mandating congresspeople take CLE (continuing legislator education).

    1. LocoYokel

      Actually, I think that an annual refresher on civics, governance, and the constitution might not be all that bad an idea.

    2. SHG Post author

      The first thing a new representative does upon election is start fundraising for the next election in two years. It’s expensive to run and it’s not easy to get donations. But that’s the job, and there is no excuse not to be aware of it.

      But the skillset for drafting, reading and understanding laws is very different for a lawyer than a medical doctor or an engineer. That’s why there tend to be a lot of lawyers in government, we have a huge leg up on the job skills. At the same time, that doesn’t make us any smarter about how to apply those skills to the policy questions of the job. But without basic skills, the likelihood of being capable of doing the job is substantially reduced.

  4. Pedantic Grammar Police

    I bet the New York Times will be relieved when they realize that many of those credentials are “honorary.” Like you said, correlation doesn’t imply causation. The reality is that a lot of the causation is reversed. If they hadn’t been elected, they would never have received those “honorary” credentials.

  5. rxc

    There are a LOT of engineers in government writing regulations, and guidance documents, and technical standards that essentially have the force of law. I used to be one of them. And I can tell you that credentials are not the most important part of that job. Not even credentials like PhDs, or Professional Engineer or medical board certifications. You need to have practical experience in the field you are dealing with, so that you have experienced .the things that can bite you in the butt if you don’t consider them. Regulations that are so vague or strangely worded that a good lawyer can drive his Cadillac thru them to get whatever his client wants, are dangerous.

    But too many people with the right experience don’t want to work in government, because it doesn’t pay as well, and is a nightmare of internal and external politics. Your “Board of Directors” has 535 members, and suffers from multiple personality disorder, because some of the members want the entire enterprise to just disappear. And every few years you are subject to unpredictable shocks when the highest level changes and you get saddled with new leaders who don’t understand the business you regulate, or do understand it, too well, and want to help out their buddies back at their old company.

    The lawyers I dealt with were generally very good. They were willing to ask good questions and make good suggestions. They are necessary to making government work well. Lawyers, engineers, doctors, academics, and business-people who come into government with the idea of changing it to meet their pre-conceived notions, though, are a disaster. They are the ones who are dangerous.

    1. SHG Post author

      There’s a difference between elected officials and career professional staff, who are expected to have qualifications in their specialties. That said, it’s not necessarily true, and the elected officials don’t necessarily heed the professionals. Then again, the pols care about re-election, which means pandering to the constituents even then it means supporting failed fixes.

      1. rxc

        Well, supposedly the “Alphabet Agencies” work for the Congress. We have rather minimal oversight from the White House, which is a subject that the SC is considering now. We write reports directly to the Congressional committees and their chairperson that oversee us, and it gets real interesting when the House Committee tells us to do one thing, while the Senate Committee (under control of a different party), tells us to do something different. The Agency head then has to figure out how to tell both of them to go away and let us figure it all out, in a diplomatic way. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it doesn’t.

        The “career professional staff” are not supposed let the politicians do bad stuff, but I remember back during the Clinton administration when a new Chairperson was embarrassed by a problem at one of our licensees and got her face on the cover of a weekly news magazine. She did not understand the industry or even the technology, and the avalanche of “advice” from capitol hill was too much. She instructed the top “career professionals” to institute a “strict compliance” regime for all of our regulations, in spite of objections by the top two career professionals. They were fired and replaced by others who were more supportive of her needs.

        3 years later, after the industry got fed up with this regime, she was ambushed one afternoon in a Senate Committee hearing by pro-industry senators who told her that she had too many people and too big a budget, and if she did not become more supportive to the industry, our agency would be reduced to a more manageable size – something more appropriate to one in, say, a small South American country. It was a near death experience for her, She came back to the office and a week of meetings and brainstorming ensued, with the generation of a wish list of everything that the industry wanted. And they got it. ASAP.

        So, yes, the career professionals are qualified in their professions, but the politicians still have overall control, and they are not hesitant to “hang a bunch of kulaks” who do not get with the program. This event was burned into the souls of every SES manager in my agency. They learned their lesson.

        1. SHG Post author

          The alphabet agencies are part of the Executive branch, not the legislative branch. While authorization for their existence and funding comes from Congress, they are not congressional agencies.

          1. rxc

            I think I may have mis-described my agency, and I apologize for that. It is an independent regulatory agency, supervised by Congress. I just googled Alphabet agencies, and found that this refers to a bunch of agencies that were created during the new deal. I saw this phrase for the first time a few weeks ago, and assumed that it referred to all the independent regulatory agencies, but evidently it does not. The agency I worked for does NOT report to the executive. Like the FCC, it is supervised by Congress. They are very weird parts of the government.

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