Colin Cherry, a British Cognitive scientist, ran a series of examinations in 1953 to learn about a selective attention phenomenon known as the “cocktail party” effect. The cocktail party effect is the process that allows someone at a loud party or restaurant to block out all the clanking, clamoring and conversations in order to listen to the conversation that they are participating in. To test this effect, Cherry would play two different audio clips in each ear of the participant and ask them to pay attention and repeat what they heard back. Cherry found that the participants could easily repeat back one of the audio clips but struggled to repeat any of the contents of the other message. This confirmed the brain’s ability to focus and take-in information through selective attention.
Americans are learning this week about another form of selective attention – let’s call it the DC Cocktail Party effect. Much like the proximity that helps people focus on their table’s conversation at a loud restaurant – the attention of our nation’s top spending officials will likely favor the nearness of their colleagues and special interests over the clamoring that is occuring outside the beltway.
Last month, Congress passed and President Trump signed a historically massive $1.3 trillion spending bill. Feeling buyer’s remorse for this gargantuan spending splurge, the Trump Administration is reportedly working with members of Congress to put together a rescissions package that would pare back as much as $60 billion of the just-passed spending increases. Congress has the power of the purse through spending legislation, but the President has the authority to send a message to Congress requesting the cancellation of specific amounts from specific accounts. Congress has 45 days to act on the request, which can be approved by a simple majority vote in the Senate (versus the typically 60 votes). Thus, if all Republicans stick together, they can use their majorities in the House and Senate to scale back federal spending – a consistent part of their political platforms.
But, there is a hitch in this plan. Not every Republican is on board, because using this tool would go back on the bipartisan spending agreement that they had just reached with Democrats. As the new Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Richard Shelby (R-AL) expressed, “If we agreed to something, I want to keep my word.” Or House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), who said, “My attitude is, your word is your bond.”
But Shelby and Frelinghuysen also made promises to their constituents on the election trail that are still expressed as legislative principles on their websites. Senator Shelby extols the virtue of cutting spending, saying “I believe that as long as the federal government continues to spend beyond its means, our nation’s economy will continue to suffer and remain stagnant. There is absolutely no excuse for continuing to add to our nation’s outstanding financial obligations that will only fall on the backs of future generations – our children and grandchildren.” Similarly, Frelinghuysen proclaims that “in order to stop this reckless road to reaching new records of debt we must…Cut government spending to protect hardworking taxpayers.”
Two messages are playing in their ears right now. One is to keep their bond with DC-interests that want more spending at the costs of higher debts piled on future generations. The other is to keep their bond to the taxpayers that elected them to represent them in Washington. Only one can win Republican appropriators’ focus. We bet it will be the one that they see at the DC-area cocktail parties.