Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

The Resilience of Congress

My colleague, Robin White, received an email the other day that she forwarded to me (It’s a little like the old commercial – “Give it to Mikey, he’ll eat anything,” only in this case it’s “send it to John; he’ll answer anything.”).  It started an interesting thread that I thought I’d share with you.

Original question:

I’m part of a project called the Resilient Democracy Coalition and I’ve been tasked with finding measurements for what could be considered a resilient governing system.  Do you by any chance have any suggestions or else studies that could point out the methods used to determine the resilience of institutions?  Our focus is the US Congress.

Lorelei Kelly

My response:

Lorelei:-

To the best of my knowledge, no one has looked at Congress quite that way. Only an uninformed fool (i.e., me) would even try to give you an answer, so here’s some thoughts…And two folks whose work at least tangentially relates to your request, and whom I greatly respect.

When we talk about “resilience,” we’re usually talking about rebounding from some kind of shock or change. For Congress, that most likely would be either a regional or national (including foreign) crisis or an election. We at CARRI like to follow some sort of functionality or capacity or level of service (I’ve attached a graphic). For Congress, that still applies, but it’s hard to ferret out (particularly when we have a Do Nothing Congress!). Passage of appropriations bills might be a good surrogate. A continuing resolution counts as one; individual appropriations bills also each count as one. Thus, when Harry Reid was refusing to allow the Senate to even consider budget resolutions from the House and all that were passed were continuing resolutions, Congressional functionality was at a nadir.

 Recovery of Community Functions

If you look at the graphic, there are three parts:

  1. A trajectory prior to the event. For communities, there is sort of a “community conservation of momentum:” disruptions tend to accelerate trends already in motion. For example, if you look at the population of New Orleans prior to Katrina, you’ll see a continuing decline until Katrina and then an accelerated decline after. I opine that that may also apply to Congress as long as leadership remains the same.
  2. A drop in functionality (i.e., the disruptive change) – it would be fun to look at transitions from one party control of Congress to split control and then back and follow functionality.
  3. A return to a “New Normal.”  For communities, I look at this in terms of two components – resources and ability to use them.  Since in general, Congress is Congress, and the resources are the same from one session to the next (i.e., we usually see the same spread of individual intellectual capacity and capability). There are exceptions but I’ll ignore them since it’s a Friday afternoon and close to Xmas.  The real key to Congressional resilience then comes down this ability to use the resources available to it.  I would suggest that the key indicator for this would be the “density” of the Congressional social network. If Left and Right have few strong connections, Congress won’t be very resilient. If the Leadership is not strongly connected to a chamber’s members, ditto.

Having now amply demonstrated that I am not a political scientist or an expert in government, let me point you to two gentlemen who are much better qualified to answer your question.

John Travis Marshall – Georgia State. Has done some interesting work looking at the resilience of local governments, esp. the problem of measuring their resilience.
Rick Weil – LSU. Has done some beautiful work around the resilience of NOLA and comes with a background of scholarship in de Tocqueville.

As you can see, I have no shame in putting those I respect on the spot!  They, in turn, both responded; I think their answers are each interesting.

Rick Weil wrote:

Many thanks for the kind shout-out, and admiration also for the erudite answer!

Fyi, to all, I try to post most of our work, unless it is under journal review, at http://www.lsu.edu/fweil/KatrinaResearch.  A few notes about revisions underway: my paper with Heather Rackin on repopulation is now revised & will be sent out to journal review shortly.  We wrote a new paper on the impact of Katrina on the causes of homicide, and have another in the works about Katrina’s impact on all crime types; those will go to journals soon.  We also plan a revision of the paper on blight reduction & rebuilding after Katrina for journal submission.  And a paper on job-loss after Katrina is being revised for re-submission to journals.  Also, we started a new element in the project, making “photo portraits” of Nola neighborhoods & residents, & developments post-Katrina.  We take pictures and videotape comments about the neighborhoods.  The first preliminary page (comments not yet entered) is on the 7th Ward & is at http://www.rickweil.com/NolaNBHs/7thWard/.  Finally, we hope to update our big survey before long if we can get funding.

John Travis Marshall then wrote:

Thank you for your great note John and yours too Rick.

Lorelei, this is a really interesting topic you’re examining.  Another project pulled me away from the work that John and I have discussed around cities and resilient laws and governance.  I’ve not sat down to think specifically about the federal government specifically. If any resources come to mind over the next few days I will forward to you.

I think your work will prompt some really important discussions.  My general editorial thought is that, prior to 2009 or 2010 you’ll need to look hard for evidence of federal institutions discussing resilience per se. As a matter of fact, I think that HUD’s 2014 (?) NOFA for the national disaster resilience competition is one of the first official HUD statements about resilience as an objective for getting federal dollars on the street. The Congressional hearings in the year or so following Katrina are fascinating in that they show a real concern with misappropriation of federal disaster response funding (ie corruption and distrust of local governments).

It is also telling that the first federal [CDBG] dollars for local implementation of neighborhood redevelopment hit the street 3.5 years after Katrina (mid-March 2009). There are some really striking news stories about the the city of New Orleans literally begging for federal funds to begin long-term recovery work — more than 2 years after Katrina. The fact is that the funding program [CDBG] and the federal rules applicable to those funding programs make it very difficult for communities to rebound from crisis and disaster because the rules are designed to make money flow slowly (I’m taking a little liberty here, but don’t think there would be much disagreement among state and local community development folks). (Possible exceptions are the Greensburg (?), KS tornado and Des Moines’ work following the 2008 Iowa floods). It is hard to design and implement programs to help neighborhoods and their residents bounce back. Unfortunately this is still the case. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal articles written since Sandy concerning, for example, New York City’s Build It Back program are distressing. And, it isn’t just the logistical difficulty of using CDBG, it is the program’s goals and rules. They were largely devised and written 40 years ago when sea level rise and climate change were distant worries and whispers. As I’m sure Rick can attest to given his familiarity with the story of New Orleans’ historic bright, one of the interesting challenges following Katrina is that HUD interpreted its rules not to allow for land banking properties. Fortunately Sean Donovan and HUD changed this.  But a land bank is an example of a type of tool that a city needs to rebound for real estate and other crises. If the federal government doesn’t incentivize resilient programs and policies at the local level then they’re less likely to materialize.

My thanks to both Rick and John for bailing me out!  If any of you have some relevant thoughts on the subject please send them to me to forward to Lorelei.

Christmas is approaching all too rapidly this year – really testing my resilience!  May each of you have the best of Holidays nourished by good food and drink and nurtured by the fellowship of family and friends. I hope you’ve enjoyed at least some of my essays; more to come in the New Year.

For those of you interested in communities and health care, let me suggest you take a look at http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2592499.  The article clearly demonstrates “How you Die Depends on Where You Live.”