(The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.)
Joshua P. Darr, Louisiana State University ; Jeremy Padgett, University of Mobile, and Johanna Dunaway, Texas A&M University
(THE CONVERSATION) Committee assignments are normally a blessing for new House members. But some of today’s newer members, like freshmen Republican representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Madison Cawthorn, seem to be more interested in punditry than policy.
When Greene was stripped of her committee assignments on Feb. 4 for a series of past statements that included threats directed against her Democratic colleagues, she replied by tweeting that she woke up “literally laughing” that “a bunch of morons” had given her “free time” to promote her views in the media.
Meanwhile, Cawthorn, in a recent email to colleagues, noted that he built his staff “around comms [communications] rather than legislation.”
We research how changes in the media have shifted the incentives of elected officials and the considerations of voters, and what that means for American democracy.
In recent work, we showed that extremely conservative and extremely liberal legislators receive far more airtime on cable and broadcast news than their moderate counterparts.
Robust local news outlets once held legislators to account by covering whether they delivered for their districts. But as local news has declined, voters are turning to national media outlets for their political news. There, ideological outliers now set the tone of the debate, distorting perceptions of the important issues and warping Americans’ views of their political options.
Communications become currency
Committees give representatives power and influence on issues that matter to their district. A seat on a committee can help a representative claim credit for legislation and raise money.
Serving on powerful and relevant committees pays dividends for new legislators, who are under pressure to produce before they face reelection in less than two years. New members are called backbenchers for a reason, however. They step into a system where experience is currency, and they are flat broke. Spots on committees are doled out by party leadership based on seniority and loyalty.
Fifty years ago, newcomers were totally out of luck. The House was controlled by older, entrenched committee chairs who were even more powerful than elected leadership.
But after the 1974 election swept in 93 new members, these backbenchers – dubbed “Watergate Babies,” since they were elected in the wake of President Nixon’s resignation – pushed for reforms that opened up committee membership and allowed television coverage of committee hearings and the House floor. In the following years, politicians like Newt Gingrich took advantage of this opportunity to reach prime-time audiences and raise their profiles through combative floor speeches.
Communications staffs expanded as earning coverage and shaping debate through the media rather than in committee meetings became the norm.
The tactics that make good television are very different from those for succeeding in the committee system. Breaking from the party line is punished when committees are the way to get ahead and party leaders control the assignments.
But this same divergence from the party line is rewarded when media exposure becomes a valuable currency: Sticking out from the crowd can elicit attention from media outlets seeking to highlight controversy in order to attract viewers.
Then there’s social media, which allows politicians to bypass reporters and editors. Rather than merely hoping reporters publish their quotes, representatives can tweet…