Special Books Edition: An Interview with Michael Johnson, Coauthor of Fixing Congress: Restoring Power to the People

By Kevin R. Kosar July 1, 2024

The topic of this special episode of the Understanding Congress podcast is a recent book by Michael Johnson and Jerome Climer. The book is titled, Fixing Congress: Restoring Power to the People (Morgan James Publishing, 2024). Mr. Johnson and Mr. Climer each have spent more than four decades in Washington, DC and have had stints working inside Congress.

Today, I have with me one of the authors, Michael Johnson, who, I should add, is not to be confused with current House Speaker Mike Johnson.

He has a long resume—he has spent about a half century in or around government, with stints in the White House, Congress, and private sector. Mike also coauthored a book with Mark Strand, Surviving Inside Congress (Congressional Institute, Inc., 2017), which we previously discussed on this podcast.

Kevin Kosar:

Welcome to Understanding Congress, a podcast about the first branch of government. Congress is a notoriously complex institution, and few Americans think well of it. But Congress is essential to our republic. It is a place where our pluralistic society is supposed to work out its differences and come to agreement about what our laws should be.

And that is why we are here: to discuss our national legislature and to think about ways to upgrade it so it can better serve our nation. I am your host, Kevin Kosar, and I’m a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington DC.

Michael Johnson, welcome to the podcast.

Michael Johnson:

Thanks very much, Kevin. It’s great to be with you, and I appreciate the invitation.

Kevin Kosar:

Every book has an origin story. What prompted you and Jerome Climer to write this book? I believe part of the story involves a taxi driver.

Michael Johnson:

That’s correct. It is a labor of love, and we’ve been laboring over this for a number of years. As you know, Jerry Clymer and I co-founded the Congressional Institute more than 30 years ago.

And the purpose of the institute was to improve the way Congress functioned, help members of Congress do their job, but also educate the public so they understood what actually is going on. Over the past five or six years, Jerry and I just got more and more concerned and disillusioned about where the Congress was going and the dysfunction of the institution itself.

That’s where the cab driver comes in. Jerry and I had written a book called Surviving Congress, which was primarily for new members of Congress and new staff coming into Congress, and I was explaining that book to a cab driver on my way back to the office one day. And he said, why don’t you write a book like that for us? We don’t understand what’s going on up there—meaning the Hill. I thought that was a great idea, so Jerry and I continued to talk and we decided to write this book, Fixing Congress—not only fixing Congress, but restoring power to the people so that they can effectively access Congress and also influence it to a greater degree. That’s how it came about.

Kevin Kosar:

And I should tell listeners out there who’ve not yet picked up the book. You really did write this book for the cab driver. It is conversational in tone. It is accessible. This is not some dry political scientist treatise. It really is an engaging read that anybody can pick up and they should.

As you note in the book, a high percentage of Americans have a low opinion of Congress. Why do you think they feel that way?

Michael Johnson:

I think for very good reason. Most Americans, as we know from conversations on the street corner and professional research survey work, are just fed up with the place and the fact that it doesn’t get anything done. Most Americans are also very tired of the fighting and the growling and the gridlock and the personal assaults that have really taken over our political system. I don’t want to be the ghost of Congress past here, but it used to be that politics—legislating and government—was kept on a professional basis and not a personal basis. Once you go down that road of starting to assault each other, eventually people just get upset with it and want it to stop.

I also think Americans long for an environment where Congress and the governmental institutions are more concerned about their security, their quality of life, and the restoration of American values and American pride and American unity. They just aren’t experiencing that anymore.

It’s their government, it’s their Congress, and they have every right to be perturbed.

Kevin Kosar:

Now let’s flip from the outsider perspective of the average American to your perspective as an insider, someone with many years of close study of the institution. Is Congress in a bad way?

Michael Johnson:

I’m concerned about the things that Americans are concerned about—I happen to be one. But what I’ve experienced over almost 50 years in Washington and in various capacities from the media to legislating and working with outside organizations is that there are fundamentals to our republic that really have to be strong and vital if a republic form of government is to succeed. And if Americans are going to have a voice and place in the whole concept of self-government, there are five things that we found that are really most important and extend beyond legislating.

One is civics education, which is just being demolished in this country. There are now 11 States that don’t even require civics in history for graduation. Only about 40 percent of the American people can, name the three branches of government. As you know, Kevin, from working in these fields yourself, the research is simply overwhelming in terms of [the benefits of] civics education.

The second thing is civility. There is a growing longing for civil discourse and better treatment of ourselves and each other. When a newspaper has to run a column explaining to you how you can actually conduct a civil conversation about politics at the Thanksgiving dinner, we have a problem. And that’s pervasive throughout society. I think that has to be restored and that can be done inside Congress and outside.

Third is outside interests. There are political parties, campaign systems, media, lobbying, etc.—all of them are critical to our system of government and our political system, but they are off the rails. There is too much money in our campaign system, coming to representatives from outside their districts or their states. The media has changed so profoundly over the last several years going from a source of information to an advocacy platform that tells you what to think and telling you what decisions you ought to be making. This is a rather dangerous thing. The political parties are too involved, but not in our legislative process in particular.

The next important thing is congressional reform, which is a subject for about two hours because there is so much that needs to be done. The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress did some great work on a bipartisan basis over several years, and I feel very good about being in on the creation of that committee and the resolution that really prompted it at all going back to 2014.

But you’ve been very much involved in that and you know about the good that has come of it. That process and spirit need to be extended, and I hope it doesn’t get buried where it is now as a subcommittee of the Committee on House Administration.

Finally, there is just a matter of civic engagement. There are privileges that go along with being a citizen. There are also responsibilities. In our system, you just can’t let the government run by itself. You’ve got to be involved starting from the local library board and your community to the city council, all the way up to Congress. Citizens can have an impact. They just need to know how and be given the tools to be more effective. Those are the kind of core values that we based the book on.

Kevin Kosar:

I would think that one of the things that probably stands out particularly is the, the state of the budget process. We’re at a point where our nation’s finances are in uncharted territory, and budgeting every year is a kind of a hold-your-breath exercise. And what could be more fundamental to governance than the ability to adopt a budget and get the revenues and spending at the correct proportions so that resources can be allocated appropriately and Americans can prosper?

Michael Johnson:

You’re absolutely right. The budget process is a mess. The budget committees need to be restructured. We need greater discipline in the process, even down to the point of changing the country’s fiscal year to a calendar year so it conforms with everything else that’s going on.

I can really appreciate why the average American gets turned off when it’s talked about in the media and on the Hill. If you go to the grocery store and want to buy a loaf of bread, you can understand cost increases and you adjust your spending to that. When you start talking about hundreds of dollars, thousands of dollars, millions of dollars, billions of dollars, and now trillions of dollars, it can be hard to comprehend that and take engage yourself in solving the debt and the annual deficits when they’re at such astronomical levels.

I used to always hear these pundits say that the national debt is so high, you could put one-dollar bills in a row and go all the way around the globe. Then it was up to the moon, and now it’s up to Mars. You just can’t fathom that. So it’s difficult to resolve, and unless there is immensely more pressure on those in government—particularly in Congress, obviously—spending is just going to keep increasing. Neither of our presidential candidates have really concerned themselves with that in both of their administrations. So budget reform is absolutely critical.

Structural reform, the committees of Congress need to be streamlined. One of the great things that the Modernization Committee did was make recommendations for easy, one-click access to government actions for the citizenry so that they can look at those actions and make their own decisions.

And of course, I go back to civility. Congress has got to discipline itself and invoke some strictures on behavior. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. I could go on for a long time on what needs to be done.

Kevin Kosar:

So, let’s talk about some reforms that can improve Congress. The book helpfully divides the reform ideas between those that Congress itself can carryout, and those that will require some outside help. So let’s start with fixes that Congress can initiate. What do you suggest?

Michael Johnson:

I think I would have to go back to the budget process and political behaviors and campaign reforms. I think reforms in those three areas would help improve the environment and eliminate some of the distractions and bad influences on congressional behavior. There are other more transformational and longer-term fixes that Congress ought to be talking about more regularly.

For example, when Congress was created in 1789, each member of Congress represented, I think, 30,000 constituents. Today they represent 720,000 constituents, so communication between citizens and legislators has taken a nosedive in terms of its effectiveness. You can’t have a meaningful relationship between a representative and a citizen if the conversation takes place, on email, or the exchange of robo-letters that are one sentence long. Town hall meetings and other types of communication don’t reach the audience you need to reach. So we may want to consider reducing the number of constituents that a congressman has to serve to give citizens more influence and more access.

There are other things that Congress can do to improve their relationship with citizens. The legislative process and the citizens suffer when members of Congress have to spend so much time raising money to get reelected. They are in competition with all these other influences for the attention of their members and their conclusion—probably accurate—is that they are getting the short end of the stick that they can’t compete with all of these major interests, media, and outside contributors. So those are things that Congress can do—most of them internally, some would require constitutional amendment. But it’s just not going to happen unless there is more incentive for them to do it, and the incentive has to come from the people they represent.

Kevin Kosar:

My colleague Yuval Levin has been an advocate for expanding the House by 150 members, and I joked once in a column that it is a hard sell trying to tell the American public, we can make your lives better by giving you more politicians. But it’s absolutely true because the average member of the House of Representatives only has about 18 staff and they can flex up to possibly 22. Imagine a private company of 18 or 22 people trying to serve a customer base of three quarters of a million. And of those 18 or 22 people, not all of them are in voter-facing positions. They have other responsibilities, like the person who’s in charge of media and the person who does the member of Congress’s schedule. So there are even fewer people available to actually deal with all the stuff that is coming in, to say nothing all the communications from organized interests. There’s a serious structural imbalance there.

How about the changes that need action from outside the chamber?

Michael Johnson:

We would like to see something occur with media literacy. Citizens can function more effectively if they are media literate and understand where and how to get various points of view so they can make up their own mind. They need to understand that going to only one news source—and I use the term “news” very loosely—very often causes themselves a deficiency in terms of how they can influence the process.

We talk in the book that citizens have to create an action forcing mechanism. In order to do that, they have to understand how they can force their representatives to take an action or take a position that works.

They also need to know who to contact. You brought up the legislative staff. There was a CMF study that was done that found that there are critical shortages of good people on the Hill, and a good part of that is just simply because of the pay.

But citizens should remember a great story that Chris Matthews used to tell—I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s a very telling story.

Senator Bill Bradley was at a dinner one evening as the principal guest. He was sitting up on the dais, and a waiter came by and put a slab of butter on his bread plate. Bradley said, “I’d like two, please,” and the waiter said, “I’m sorry, but there’s just one to a guest at the dinner.” Bradley said, “Do you have any idea who I am? I was a Rhodes Scholar. I was an all-American basketball player. I am in the Basketball Hall of Fame. I am now a United States Senator. But more importantly, I’m the guest of honor at this dinner and I’m going to be giving a speech.” And the waiter looked at him and said, “Senator, do you know who I am?” Bradley said no. The waiter said, “Well, I’m the man in charge of the butter.”

What citizens need to do is understand is who’s in charge of the butter, not who has the biggest or most visible title—who in a congressional office do they need to tap to get something done?

Kevin Kosar:

Much of what’s lurking behind the reforms suggested in the book is creating a better incentive structure for people who work in Congress. I think it’s very easy for folks on the outside to look at people in Congress and say that Congress is performing badly because the people are bad.

Some of them may in fact be bad; others are just simply following the incentive structures. If we as citizens are setting bad incentives for them—such as rewarding them for engaging in obnoxious or uncivil behavior, or doing other things that really don’t fix problems, but simply just make noise about them—then we too are part of the problem. That’s a sobering lesson from the book.

Thank you, Michael Johnson, co-author of the new book, Fixing Congress: Restoring Power to the People. Thank you for sparing time with to be with us on the program.

Michael Johnson:

I enjoyed it very much, Kevin. Good to talk to you. Thank you.


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