Your Next Member of Congress Is Extremely Unlikely to Transform Washington

As we begin an election year, a lot of people are having to make their final decisions about whether to run for Congress. Sandra Fluke decided to pass on a House race and run for the California state senate instead. Singer Clay Aiken is running in North Carolina, and though the district makes it a tough slog, the guy is about ten times more skilled in front of a camera than your average candidate, as evidenced by his first ad. Then there's Allan Levene, whose desire to serve his nation is so fervent that he's running in four different districts in four states, which is apparently perfectly legal.

But the candidate I want to talk about is Ro Khanna, who, according to the New York Times, is running to be Silicon Valley's man in Washington. The Valley is split between two districts, represented by Anna Eshoo and Mike Honda, two liberal Democrats who have advocated plenty for the tech industry. But Honda's advocacy must not have been enthusiastic enough, because a parade of tech titans including Eric Schmidt, Sheryl Sandberg, Marc Andreessen, and Marissa Mayer, is lining up behind Khanna's primary challenge to the veteran congressman. Khanna has nearly $2 million in cash on hand (three times as much as Honda), and his web site lists hundreds of "technology leaders" who have endorsed him.

Which is perfectly fine—Honda's a good guy, but nobody has a right to keep their seat, and if Khanna beats him fair and square, then more power to him. But I wonder if all the Valley luminaries backing Khanna have illusions about what he might be able to do for them. As the Times says, "Using the jargon of tech start-ups, Mr. Khanna says he will be a 'disruptive' force in Washington." OK, so this is just the tech version of, "I'm going to change the way they do business in Washington!", which is what every congressional challenger says. But it's always baloney, and they never do.

That's because there are 435 members of Congress, and moving into a position of influence requires not just time and work, but the permission of the people above you in the hierarchy. This is particularly true on the Democratic side, where Nancy Pelosi runs an extremely tight ship. Democrats in the House pretty much do what Pelosi tells them, and they all benefit from the system; few of them would want to be part of the kind of Thunderdome free-for-all that characterizes the House Republican caucus these days. Furthermore, it's one thing to gain influence, and another thing entirely to amass so much influence that you can actually change the institution in a meaningful way.

So could Khanna be a disruptive force? Well, there's really only one way to make an immediate impact as a freshman member of Congress, and that's to be an obnoxious loudmouth. You can be an obnoxious loudmouth for good liberal causes, like Alan Grayson did when he first got to Congress, or you can be an obnoxious loudmouth for conservative causes, like Alan West did. Do it loudly and obnoxiously enough, and you can get on cable news a lot and people will learn your name.

But there's nothing particularly "disruptive" about that; feeding the outrage machine doesn't exactly subvert the status quo. So if Ro Khanna gets to Congress, he'll have to be pretty creative if he wants to disrupt things in a positive way. The tech giants who are behind him probably shouldn't get their hopes up.

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