Luminous Enchiladas

Things I'm Chewing On

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A Sense of Direction for Metro

Metro is rethinking signage for its subway system, as GreaterGreaterWashington recently reported. The current design, which uses the end station name to signal train direction, may be supplemented or replaced by the cardinal direction in which a train is heading. While it is an improvement, Metro should do more to improve wayfinding.

As a start, Metro should:

(1) Assign numbers for all the stations on a particular line in numerical order in addition to using the names of station

(2) Identify a point of interest along the line to help orient passengers on the direction a train is heading, in addition to identifying the end station on a line

(3) Indicate whether the train is heading towards or away from DC (inbound/outbound), and for trains inside the city center, indicate the cardinal direction the train is heading.

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Getting from A to B

These recommendations are made on the basis of how people conceptualize navigating. Generally speaking, humans use three techniques to navigate from point A to point B.

First, some people have an inherent sense of direction and easily can distinguish north, south, east, and west. They merely need to be told to travel in a particular direction and the distance.

Second, some people use landmarks to navigate. For example: travel down the street and once you see the gas station on your left, make a right turn and go until you see the library.

Third, some people follow step-by-step directions. Go four blocks, make a left on L St., go another two blocks, your destination is on the right. Most people use a combination of these techniques.

None of these techniques works particularly well in Metro. The stations are largely underground and undistinguishable from one another. A fair number of riders are out-of-town visitors who have not had time to build a mental map. Metro’s use of the final station on a line to indicate direction is confusing to many people, including long-time residents. Other considerations may arise for the visually impaired. And, of course, Metro’s cryptic signage system largely is unhelpful.

Picture of DC Metro

Best practices

Other transit systems use various techniques to facilitate wayfinding. One technique is to have transit stations on a line numbered in addition to having a name. For non-English-speaking visitors, this can be invaluable. Arabic numerals are widely used throughout the world and are easily understood. For out-of-town visitors, numbering stations allows passengers to anticipate how many stops until this time to exit the train. Additionally, increasing or decreasing numbers can be an easy clue as to the direction of train is traveling. This is used in Tokyo.

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Another technique is to contextualize the direction of train is traveling. For example, New York City identifies trains are traveling downtown or uptown. Boston trains often indicate ” inbound" or "outbound." London’s tube indicates cardinal direction). In other places, station signage will make it clear what the next station is in the line of travel. Or, perhaps more helpfully, indicate a significant point of interest in each direction.

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Transit systems in other countries use a number of other techniques. Standard verbal announcements on trains and maps on trains that indicate the current location and the direction of travel are comparatively poorly implemented in DC’s Metro system. Similarly, Metro station signage is sparse, cryptic, and unhelpful. Often times, directions are not available at the points where passengers must make decisions. My favorite contextual clue is the music played by each subway line in Tokyo.

By taking account of the different ways that people navigate and best practices from other transit systems, Metro could make itself more welcoming and reduce the number of passengers who are lost, confused, and underfoot.

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Fixing Federal Hiring With Big Data

(Cross-posted from CREW)

The federal hiring system is broken. An April Partnership for Public Service report calls it “slow, complex, a mystery to applicants and imprecise in identifying the best-qualified candidates.” Job seekers must also overcome employment announcements written to favor a particular candidate. The announcements, however, are also the key to uncovering unfair hiring practices, if treated as data in a much larger system.

Agencies use many techniques to game the hiring system. Some job announcements have an unusually short application deadline, limiting the number of people who see the notice and subtly signaling that applications are not wanted. Others announcements have requirements tailored to a particular candidate. Taking a different tack, some notices are so vague that only an applicant with the inside track knows what the job entails and what to say in an application. Should these approaches fail and the preferred candidate fails to emerge at the end of the process, an agency may cancel the announcement only to reopen it later.

The government knows about some of these problems, even if it does not describe their cause. A report by the Merit Systems Protection Board, the body responsible for promoting an effective federal workforce free of prohibited personnel practices, said:

"[A]ll too often, vacancy announcements are not well written. They can use jargon, contain grammatical errors, and come across as negative or even insulting. They are frequently hard to understand—with murky job titles and duties, qualification requirements that are lengthy and unspecific, and vague or even contradictory applicant instructions."

This is not just incompetence; agencies have strong incentives to game the system. It can be difficult to find and hire good people. Human resource departments, which often conduct the initial screenings, are notorious for weeding out capable candidates. Agencies often can retain promising employees only by promoting them, but the system makes this difficult. In addition, as the Partnership for Public Service reportexplained, “employees frequently are stymied from moving among agencies, and the entry of experienced and qualified applicants into government from the private sector is often difficult.” Of course, nepotism, favoritism, and corruption are factors as well.

Most federal agencies post job notices on USAJobs, the official federal jobs website, run by the Office of Personnel Management. Because it is a central source for jobs information, watchdogs could use USAJobs to monitor agency hiring activities. The website publishes its listings as data via an API, making information collection less onerous than in years past.

A jobs watchdog could mine jobs announcement data and look for patterns. This was done to a limited extent in a 2003 Merit System Protection Board report, which looked at a sample of job announcements and found more than half were of poor quality. The USAJobs API makes it possible to examine all job listings at once.

While there may be some use in examining which agencies are hiring at a particular pay level or the number of open announcements, the real value comes from digging deeper to examine the extent of unfair hiring practices. How many jobs are posted for a short time by an agency or component? How frequently are the same job descriptions used for different positions? What is the “readability level” of the announcement? In what agencies is it likely for jobs to disappear and then reappear? Is a job announcement at a particular grade level typical of other announcements or does it appear to have additional unusual qualifications? A public-facing hiring dashboard that aggregates statistics on agency performance could shed some welcome sunlight. While data analysis may not yield conclusive evidence of wrongdoing, it provides a map.

Agency practices that circumvent fair hiring practices can be a means of coping with a dysfunctional system, and the government must address the underlying problems. To begin, we first must understand the dimensions of the problem. USAJobs data can help us find the way.

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A Tech-Smart Congress

(Cross-posted from CREW)

Congress is often pretty ignorant when it comes to technology, but it has not always been that way. Nearly two decades ago, Congress defunded its Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which provided legislators crucial advice and insight into technology issues. If technologists, national security wonks, scientists, and good government groups come together, there is a real chance OTA could be revived. This would help move policymaking out of the hands of well-funded lobbyists and slippery national security officials and back to newly-empowered lawmakers.

Recently Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), the only physicist in Congress, offered an amendment on the House floor to restart OTA with a $2.5 million appropriation. Despite the support of a coalition of organizations, the effort to amend the 2015 Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill was rejected 164-248.

However, the Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee has yet to consider its appropriations bill, so an opportunity exists for progress in the upper chamber. To a large extent, that depends on Subcommittee Chair Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Ranking Member John Hoeven (R-ND), and committee members Mark Begich (D-AK), Chris Coons (D-DE), and John Boozman (R-AK). The committee is expected to markup the bill later this month.

The executive branch has come to realize the importance of independent technology assessment. The special commission established by President Obama to review the balance between national security and civil liberties—formed in the wake of the NSA spying scandal—recommended reestablishing OTA, but in the executive branch. The President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies issued a report explaining that policymakers lack independent, trustworthy advice on important technology questions. Specifically, the report recommend that “an Office of Technology Assessment should be created within the Civil Liberties and Privacy Protection Board to assess Intelligence Community technology initiatives and support privacy-enhancing technologies.”

Here is the commission’s reasoning (emphasis added):

Public policy is shaped in part by what is technically possible, and technology experts are essential to analyzing the range of the possible. An improved technology assessment function is essential to informing policymakers about the range of options, both for collection and use of personal information, and also about the cost and effectiveness of privacy-enhancing technologies.

Prior to 1995, Congress had an Office of Technology Assessment that did significant studies on privacy and related issues. The OTA was then abolished, and no similar federal agency has existed since. Because the effectiveness of privacy and civil liberties protections depend heavily on the information technology used, a steady stream of new privacy and technology issues faces the Intelligence Community…. Because the Intelligence Community pushes the state of the art to achieve military and other foreign policy objectives, assessment of the technological changes must be up-to-date.

We therefore recommend that the government should have an Office of Technology Assessment that does not report directly to the Intelligence Community but that has access to Intelligence Community activities. Congress is vital to oversight of the Intelligence Community, but it does not have an office to enable it to assess technology developments. The CLPP Board, with classified personnel and agency independence, is the logical place for this sort of independent assessment.

With all respect to the Commission’s recommendations, OTA belongs inside Congress and should cover the entire range of technology issues. Debates over net neutrality, bulk data collection, copyright, and many others would be enlivened and better informed were OTA still around. With technology playing such a central role in our lives, the government should do all it can to strengthen its expertise.

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5 Datasets in Celebration of Data Innovation Day

(Cross-posted from CREW)

Today is Data Innovation Day. To celebrate, here are five government datasets that, while technically available to the public now, we would love to see published in a structured, downloadable database.

5. Lobbying activities by foreign registered agents

Most people who lobby the federal government are required to report their activities. Those who lobby on behalf of domestic entities have their information published in bulk as a downloadable dataset here. While persons who lobby on behalf of foreign governments are required to file disclosure forms, unfortunately you cannot download all the information as a data file. This information is incredibly valuable, but without the efforts of third parties like ProPublica and the Sunlight Foundation, who make much of it available as a dataset, it would be just about impossible to figure out larger patterns of lobbying activity.

The Department of Justice, which is responsible for tracking foreign agents, should make sure lobbying information about foreign agents is made available to the public in a machine-processable digital format.

4. Political spending on television ads

For over 40 years, advertisers have been required to file information on political ad purchases with broadcasters. That data has been available at each local station, but it is not available in a central location. The Federal Communications Commission recently required that the “political files” of CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox that are located in the top 50 markets be made available online, with all television stations required to upload their information after July 1, 2014. Unfortunately, while some information is now available at this central FCC website, without standardization it’s virtually impossible to search across the data. Most information has been uploaded as unsearchable, virtually unusable PDFs.

The FCC should require that all information be uploaded in a standardized format that allows for easy flow into a database, which the FCC should release to the public.

3. Expenditure reports for members of Congress

By law, the House of Representatives and the United States Senate must publish every dime they spend. For over two centuries, they’ve published regular statements of disbursements, composed of thousands of pages of tables and figures. In the last few years, the House began publishing its quarterly statements online as PDFs, a move belatedly followed by the Senate for its semiannual reports. Of course, several thousand pages of tables is a lot less useful than providing the information in electronic tabular format, i.e. a spreadsheet.

The House and Senate should save themselves a lot of time, and much of their printing costs, and publish their regular expenditure reports in machine-readable formats.

2. Tax forms for non-profit organizations

In recent years, non-profit organizations have become significant players in our political space. While the tax turns that non-profits must file — known as 990s — are required to be available to the public, you can only them from the IRS one at a time by filling out this form, and then waiting weeks or months for the response. It is possible to get them in bulk from the IRS, but it costs thousands of dollars. This is so unbelievably frustrating that a fair number of organizations have taken up the mantle of (1) publishing all the forms and (2) digitizing their contents. While the administration has said it is moving in this direction, it’s not there yet.

The Obama administration, specifically the Department of the Treasury, should publish all 990 tax forms online in bulk, in both human-readable and machine-readable formats.

1. Legislative information

It’s unfair to talk about federal legislative information without distinguishing between the House and the Senate. In recent years, the House has made significant strides in releasing legislative information in electronic formats, from bills to committee hearing notices to votes. Generally speaking, the Senate has lagged significantly. The two chambers jointly are responsible for THOMAS, the legislative information website, and its not-yet-fully-implemented successor Congress.gov. While the new Congress.gov is a lot more flexible than THOMAS, the underlying information it contains — bills, amendments, identities of legislative sponsors, bill summaries, the status of legislation — is not available in a machine-readable format. This is a real problem. All the third-party, nifty websites that make this information digestible for the rest of us consequently are powered by arcane and fragile techniques that harvest the information from THOMAS.

Congress should publish all of this legislative information online in structured formats that machines can easily process. We have seen other countries, notably the United Kingdom, undertake an effort to make all legislative information available in useful forms. People shouldn’t have to rely on third parties to access basic information about Congress.

Honorable mentions

There are a several obvious datasets that have not been mentioned. Let me briefly add that all federal spending information should be made available to the public, which is why we support the DATA Act that would require just that. All reports to Congress should be made available online, which is why we support the Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act. And all court opinions and orders should be available to the public without charge. There are many other things the government should do — big and small — to make our lives and the lives of public servants much easier, and probably save the taxpayers a few bucks, too. 

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Who Counts as a Whistleblower?

(Cross-posted from CREW)

Disclosures about the National Security Administration’s (NSA) surveillance programs have prompted a discussion on whether the person who released that information, Edward Snowden, could properly be deemed a whistleblower.  The word whistleblower is important because it frames how we think of him and what should become of him.

By definition, whistleblowers are people who “expose wrongdoing within an organization in the hope of stopping it.”  The term may be contrasted with leakers, defined as “surreptitious informants” and carrying the connotation of self-interested or sinister motivations.  There can be an overlap between the terms, best exemplified by Watergate’s deep throat, FBI Associate Director Mark Felt, who shed light on massive government wrongdoing but did so in part out of petty motivations.

Much meaning is packed into the concept of whistleblower, which is an umbrella term that includes several kinds of whistleblowing.  Illuminating these distinctions may help refine our instincts about Snowden, and whistleblowers generally.

The most commonly understood type of whistleblower is someone who exposes graft, self-dealing, or other malfeasance.  For example, raising the alarm on a government bureaucrat who solicits bribes is a form of whistleblowing.  The same is true for reporting a government contracting official who steers agreements to a preferred vendor in return for a kickback.  There is wide consensus this illegal and immoral behavior should be punished and publicly exposed.  For ease of reference, let us call this corruption whistleblowing.

A second kind of whistleblowing occurs when someone reports problems with the administration of government programs.  For example, a person who discloses that a military contractor ran late and significantly over budget is a whistleblower.  Similarly, a person who goes public regarding serving poor quality food to school children, where the food meets inappropriately low legal minimums and poses nutrition or health risks, also qualifies.  Competent management would have prevented these lapses from arising.  Let us call this mismanagement whistleblowing.

I suggest there is a third kind of whistleblower: someone who brings to light government behavior that shows the government has deceived the public about its actions.  For example, Daniel Ellsberg’s dissemination of a secret study of the Vietnam War, known as the Pentagon Papers, demonstrated that the government knew it was going to lose the Vietnam War even while giving the American people assurances to the contrary.  Another example is the publication of the “enhanced interrogation methods” used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to torture individuals.  The activities exposed may or may not be authorized by law, but this form of whistleblowing reveals contradictions between the public’s understanding of government policy and official actions.  Underpinning the disclosure is a debate about what government policy should be — a debate forestalled by government secrecy.  Let us call this democracy whistleblowing.

A single act may qualify as whistleblowing under one or more of these categories.  In many instances, federal law has created channels for corruption whistleblowers and mismanagement whistleblowers to report inappropriate activities.  Unfortunately, avenues for democracy whistleblowing are extremely limited.  In fact, there is a substantial disagreement on whether there can be such a thing as democracy whistleblowing, let alone whether a particular instance would qualify as such.  The governmental activity may not be considered by those in power to be illegal, and efforts to raise questions about it may result in the potential whistleblower losing his or her job or worse.

Whistleblowers are supposed to report problems up the chain of command or to independent governmental entities.  Reporting problems in this way theoretically shields the whistleblower against criminal prosecution for leaking as well as against retaliation by angry government officials.  In practice, whistleblowers who follow so-called proper channels often suffer greatly, and the reports frequently are ignored.

Reporting problems to Congress poses particular risks.  Members of Congress do not always handle allegations properly, and sometimes share the name of the whistleblower with the government officials implicated in wrongdoing.  Other times, members may feel constrained from sharing this information with the public, or even delving into it themselves, especially when the matter concerns national security.

Sometimes the only way to prompt remedial action is to go to the media.  Indeed, the media is often referred to as the “fourth estate” whose job is to hold the government to account.  In the United States, it is not illegal for the media to publish information, but it can be illegal for the whistleblower to provide that information to the media.

As far as we know, Snowden does not qualify as a corruption or mismanagement whistleblower, although there are indications of NSA mismanagement.  In addition, arguments could be made that at least some of the disclosed NSA actions were legal.  Given the nature and stated intent behind his actions, Snowden is best characterized as a democracy whistleblower.  But that begs the question: Do we wish to accord whistleblower status to those who divulge information necessary for democratic accountability when that disclosure apparently violates the law?  Our confusion leaves Snowden to face virtually unlimited risk, especially were he to return to the United States.

While Snowden’s flight from the U.S. after revealing secrets to the Guardian is sensible from a risk-mitigation perspective, it also makes his message more vulnerable to attack.  Some critics paint him as anti-American because of those who have given him refuge.  Similarly, some civil society organizations do not wish to go too far in defending him either out of fear that they too will be painted as un-American or that he will release information the disclosure of which would be difficult to defend.  While unsavory, it is unsurprising that organizations are engaging in realpolitik.  But, what would be in the best long-term interest of our democracy?

In some sense, that dilemma reduces to a series of judgment calls.  Did Snowden reveal gaps in our system of democratic accountability?  Are we better off knowing what he disclosed?  Were these disclosures likely made as part of an effort to reform the system?  There can be little doubt the answer in all cases is yes.  We cannot avoid the conclusion that Snowden is a whistleblower, with all that it entails.  But in reaching that conclusion, we are also concluding the ends justifies the means.  That is a troubling result.  Perhaps, in the absence of strong whistleblower protection laws and robust rules that ensure an accountable and transparent government, that is the best we can do.

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Can IT Cure Congress? | MIT Technology Review

This article makes me very sad. With the elimination of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment in 1995 and the massive staff cuts to the Congressional Research Service and GAO as well as Congress itself (House, Senate), Professor Saloma’s hopes are but a pipe dream.  He prognosticated, in 1968, that IT development will allow a future congressman to …

[sit] at a console in his office poring over computer print-outs into the late evening hours or over the weekend and cutting through the paper arguments and justifications of executive programs with penetrating lines of questions. … In situations that invite adversary argument, alternative positions and points of view will be more thoroughly developed and cogently presented.


What we’ve seen instead is the rise of partisan think tanks that have their own particular brew of “facts,” and Member of Congress who lack the resources to perform (or have performed for them) many of the basic analyses that would enable them to do their jobs.

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3 Federal #HackForDC Ideas From a Non-Coder

Today, the National Day of Civic Hacking, I am at home, taking care of my 7-month old, having given up my ticket to #hackfordc so that someone else can meet the cool folks I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years. Even as I struggle through Learn Python the Hard Way, I am reminded that you don’t have to be a coder to contribute.


In that spirit, here are 3 project ideas that make use of congressional information.


WHAT’S HAPPENING ON THE HILL?


It’s just about impossible to follow when Congress has scheduled a committee/subcommittee hearing/meeting without a paid subscription to a news service that gathers this info. But over the last few years, the Senate and House have begun releasing meeting notices online in parsable formats. Unfortunately, there’s no publicly-available central place to see all the notices from the different committees, and it’s not possible to sign up for official alerts for a particular subcommittee. All the data is there, but it isn’t being corralled.


For most people, it may be useful to follow a few particular subcommittees, but information about actions by others are distracting. For example, I pay attention to the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, but don’t really care much about the other Appropriations Subcommittees. There should be a way to filter out the noise.


What would be great is if one could subscribe to subcommittee notices as RSS feeds, or even better, as something that could be pushed by email as information is updated. A user could subscribe to the subcommittees (including the full committee itself) of his or her choosing, and ignore the rest.


Here’s where you can find the data:


The Senate meeting calendar is available in XML here. As you look at the XML, you can see that the calendar identifies both the name of the full committee and the subcommittee.


The House publishes notices of meetings and markups weekly here, and if you go to a particular committee (say Appropriations), there’s an RSS feed for upcoming committee meetings. (It’s also possible to filter the docs.house.gov calendar by subcommittee, but I’m not sure how you get at the underlying data.) The subcommittee is identified in the description tag, along with other details.


OPEN UP DRAFT LEGISLATION


It’s important to be able to have plain text versions of bills, especially draft legislation. Why? Clean (non-PDF) versions can be compared against other iterations to see what has changed and marked-up so that you can easily make suggestions for improvements. Unfortunately, pre-introduction legislation is only made available to staff as a PDF, which is hardly useful to anyone. And sometimes even introduced legislation is available first as a PDF and only later as XML.


What would be helpful is a tool that ingests PDFs of draft-legislation and returns plain text. But converting the PDF to text isn’t enough. It also would need to remove the line numbers, the headers (e.g. “F:\M13\ROYCE\ROYCE_005.XML” as well as the page numbers), and the footers (e.g. “F:\M13\ROYCE\ROYCE_005.XML f:\VHLC\022613\022613.176.xml (542138|23)”. By clearing out this additional stuff, you’re left with the text of the legislation only, which can then be used in many ways.


Here are some examples of Senate pre-introduced legislation. Example 1, Example 2, Example 3, Example 4. You can use this Google search to find more: ‘S.  ll  ”In the Senate of the United States” filetype:pdf’. Note that the S.L.C. in the top right corner means it was drafted by Senate Legislative Counsel, indicating it likely will follow standard formatting.


Here are some examples of House pre-introduced legislation. Example 1, Example 2, Example 3, Example 4. You can use this Google search to find more ‘H. R. ll IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES “(Original Signature of Member) ” filetype:pdf’. In the House, nearly all legislation is drafted by House Legislative Counsel, so they all follow a pretty standard format.  


CRS REPORT FRESHNESS RATINGS

 

The Congressional Research Service is a congressional think tank, and it issues report on important issues of the day. Over time, CRS will update a report to reflect new facts or changing circumstances. Sometimes these changes are significant, but other times the update could be as minor as the addition of punctuation or removal of a citation. However, there’s no way for the reader to know whether the new report needs to be read closely or if there’s just been a cosmetic change.


CRS reports should have freshness ratings based on a comparison of the current text to the previous iteration. So, if the language is virtually identical except for the addition of a sentence, it would receive a low rating (e.g. 1% fresh), but if the report has been largely rewritten, it would receive a high rating (e.g. 80% fresh).


All CRS reports have a unique identifier on their front page as well as the date it was issued. For example, a report could have unique ID RL1234 and have an issued day of May 1, 2012. If it is reissued, the unique ID stays the same, but it gets a new issued date of September 1, 2013. Alas, the reports are in PDF format, so it’s probably a non-trivial problem to show what text has changed. But using PDF-to-text, you can at least compare the output files to see whether there’s a trivial or significant difference.


So where you can find CRS reports? That’s another problem, but a large corpus is available at opencrs, which just happens to have an API. If you want to gather more, there’s other aggregators, or you could use this Google search ‘7-5700 “Congressional Research Service” filetype:pdf’.

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Hate mail

I published this article in Slate earlier this week and have been floored by the response. I don’t mind when people disagree with me, but I was astonished at (1) how poorly people read and (2) how much their emotions rule their decision-making.

In the article, I argue that we should pay members of Congress more money so as to align their incentives with ours. This is fairly controversial. The responses, however, have largely fallen into these categories:

  • I hate Congress. We should cut their pay because they suck.
  • You are stupid.
  • I work harder than they do. My pay hasn’t gone up. Why should theirs?
  • Congress paid you to say this. You are a shill for them.
  • This is public service. They should do this work for free (or little cost).
  • They are lazy and on vacation all the time.

Except for the final two arguments, the first four merely vent rage. I wonder if the authors even got past the first paragraph, or even the title of the article? Probably not.

This expression of populist rage and false economy is counterproductive to the goals of the writers. They want Congress to be more responsive, or at least more responsible. They don’t see how low pay is connected to poor performance.

Unfortunately, it’s this kind of rage that leads Congress to do stupid things like cutting their own pay and decimating their staff. You can’t cut off oxygen to the brain and expect everything to work like normal.

The end of the Roman republic was marked when rich populists used their vast wealth to buy the sentiment of their fellow-citizens. I wonder if we’re heading towards our own rubicon.