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Is Congress Suffering From ADHD?

Can an entire branch of government be suffering from a mental disorder?
Is Congress Suffering From ADHD?

Can an entire  branch of government be suffering from a mental disorder? I’m talking about the U.S. Congress, and I’m thinking of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

I don’t mean to minimize in any way the difficulties of individuals who grapple with ADHD, or the challenges facing the persons who care for them. I am a student of philosophy, not a doctor of medicine. These limits notwithstanding, I urge you to read on, and see if you too are not tempted to dispense your diagnosis from a distance.

What set me off is this description from the UK’s National Health Service I came across on symptoms associated with ADHD in adults. I was stunned at how many seem to apply to Congress. Let’s first look at the list together, and then I’ll make some suggestions for what we as a nation might consider doing about it:

Symptoms Of ADHD

Does This Apply To Congress?

·         Carelessness and lack of attention to detail

Absolutely. If you have to pass a bill to know what’s in the bill, then you are not paying sufficient attention to detail.

·         Continually starting new tasks before finishing old ones

Yes indeed. Especially when we consider how infrequently Congress stops to consider the impact of its earlier decisions. See Congress Gets A Grade.

·         Poor organizational skills

Congress delegates great chunks of responsibility for implementing laws to Federal agencies because Congress is not organized to handle the details.

·         Inability to focus or prioritize

No doubt. Committee Chairs latch on to the news of the moment, holding mock hearings, and siphoning off campaign contributions from the ire of an aroused public. As the news changes, so do their priorities.

·         Continually losing or misplacing things

Certainly, when one considers what has happened to our balanced budget, our reputation as a country, and our sense of shared decency.

·         Forgetfulness

Members of Congress have a unique ability to say things that are the complete opposite of what they said a short while ago, which we can charitably put down to forgetfulness.

·         Restlessness and edginess

Very much so. Congress must be seen to be doing something, and there is constant agitation among members to raise new topics. See Congress Is Performing As Expected

·         Difficulty keeping quiet, and speaking out of turn

When debates in the halls of Congress spill over into the realm of Twitter, and no comment can go uncommented, this symptom is undoubtedly present.

·         Blurting out responses and often interrupting others

Yes, more of the same, the more intemperate the better.

·         Mood swings, irritability and a quick temper

Where once we had attempts at bipartisanship, today we see members of Congress assume bad intent without evidence. Disagreement is a sign of disagreeability, and responded to in kind.

·         Inability to deal with stress

Harder to say, but it’s one possible explanation for the steady stream of scandals that trail after members of Congress like seagulls trailing a garbage scow. The alternative is to believe a disproportionate number of our representatives are flawed coming into the job, so let’s again be charitable and assume the pressure makes them fail, not that they are failed to begin with.

·         Extreme impatience

Yes, see above under Inability to Focus and Restlessness.

·         Taking risks in activities, often with little or no regard for personal safety or the safety of others

If we understand this to mean that Congress passes legislation with little or no regard to the impact that it has on citizens, or the success or failure of the law compared to it’s intended goal, then absolutely.

Now, you may not agree with every point, but that’s not the point of the table. I hope you do agree that Congress today is dysfunctional, and its many disorders can be listed.

So is there anything that can be done? What treatment can we apply to help heal this ailing patient? A bit further on in their discussion, the National Health Service provides advice for parents and others on coping with ADHD. For our purposes, I found these statements deserving of attention:

  • Make sure everyone knows what behavior is expected, and reinforce positive behavior with immediate praise or rewards.
  • Be clear, using enforceable consequences, such as taking away a privilege, if boundaries are overstepped and follow these through consistently.

Before we blame the patient for their illness, let me ask you this: Have we been clear enough about what it is we expect Congress to do for us? We refer to members of Congress as “representatives,” so before we bemoan whether they represent us faithfully, have we told them what we want? See Ways To Make Politics Better.

We have spent so much time focusing on the differences between Democrats and Republicans, between left and right, or liberal and conservative, that we have stopped talking about the things we all agree upon. Let’s first remind ourselves, and then remind Congress, of the many things that unite us as Americans. I’d say the U.S. Constitution and the first ten amendments to it contained in the Bill of Rights are a suitable place to start. See Ten Things We Can All Agree On.

When Congress fails to act in accordance with the basic values and principles we hold dear, and which we have reminded ourselves of, we must hold Congress accountable. Let your representative know right away when they have not lived up to our expectations. And perhaps even more importantly, let’s reinforce good behavior with positive reinforcement. Write a letter of thanks, setting out specifically what they did to earn our praise.

The ultimate consequence comes from your voting consequently. If our representatives do not represent us faithfully, then why on earth do we reward their perfidy? “I fear the alternative is worse,” you say. “Better the devil you know than the one you don’t.” I am sorry to say, this is not clever wisdom, only capitulation. If we insist on performance, we will get performance.

But if you vote for party regardless of performance, do not be surprised when you get what you vote for.

Be well.