American Sauce: Can Congress do math?
November 14th, 2011
02:52 PM ET
2 years ago

American Sauce: Can Congress do math?

Washington (CNN) - The deficit tangle is a web of complex, long-term, financial problems. But no one seems to ask a basic question: Do members of Congress have those kinds of math skills?

Some of them can't do simple math on the spot (example in latest American Sauce podcast: 642-211). Many of them have mixed up "billions" and "trillions". And the vast majority of Congress comes from professions that don't involve high-level math.


But reining in the deficit means dealing with defense spending, entitlement costs, the tax code and the economy.

"How many members actually understand the ins and outs on all of these things at the same time?," budget expert Stan Collender posed, "maybe five, maybe 10, but not much more than that."

Collender is one of the rare people who has worked for both the House and Senate budget committees. He now is with Qorvis Communications in Washington.

The former budget staffer points out that members of Congress rely on trusted aides to boil down, explain and sometimes compute the math of potential policy. But with so much of current policy hinging on numbers, the level of math understanding by members could affect the tone and direction of debate dramatically.

American Sauce asked Collender, "How good are members of Congress at math?" His answer, "Math is not the basic thing here."

Collender means that math is not the prime motivator or analytic tool for any action in Washington. What is? He indicates it's appealing to your voters, whether the math works or not.

"If a member of Congress goes back and tries to explain the process, tries to explain the substance, they sound like part of the problem, not part of the solution," Collender said. "Some members of Congress listen but in many cases what they're trying to do is come up with something that will please their constituents and make them think they are thinking for them."

For more on just how many members of Congress have math skills, listen to this week's podcast.

You can also listen to American Sauce on iTunes, Stitcher or subscribe to the podcast via RSS.

– CNN's Dan Szematowicz, Jonathan Binder and Emma Lacey-Bordeaux contributed to this report.

Also see:

Super committee: 10 days to deadline and no deal imminent

Pelosi fires back at '60 Minutes' report on 'soft corruption'

'Super committee' co-chair has hope


Filed under: American Sauce • Congress • Debt • Deficit • Deficit commission
soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Thad

    So why are they in congress in the first place? How could you fix anything in this country if you do.t have a higher understnding of math. I guess thats why the federal reserve has free reign
    What a joke on the american people. We as a country are uneducated and stupid we have been played by an organization of con man democrats con men and republican con men fighting for the top con man position.

    November 14, 2011 03:02 pm at 3:02 pm |
  2. JustAO

    Over half of our legislators are lawyers by education and/or trade. They are not experts in fields that require math, science, or technical research. That is why they bicker and argue because that is what their professions pertain to; not solving complex issues that require cooperation and compromise on the facts that have been researched and vetted. You ever wonder why an engineer or scientist is not running for office? It is because most technical experts are not looking for recognition based on their personality and charm, but rather their research, findings, and expert achievements.

    November 14, 2011 03:19 pm at 3:19 pm |
  3. Dixie AZ

    The super committee is such a waste of time. We need cuts and a raise in revenue. Does anyone seriously think the Republicans would pass a bill with both? The 1% is the only group that can afford a raise in taxes. The deadline will come and go with nothing done but the click of a trigger.

    November 14, 2011 03:20 pm at 3:20 pm |
  4. Willy Loman

    New analysis finds U.S. ranked 31st out of 56 countries in mathematical performance. I mean how else do you expect to convince 50% of the population that we can balance the budget while cutting revenue? If the average American were good with math, the GOP would not continue to exist.

    November 14, 2011 03:21 pm at 3:21 pm |
  5. JustAO

    The "director" does not want to be the politician, the "actor" does! One is behind the scenes to do the hard work while the other is the face of that hard work and presents it to the public.

    If politicians really were hard at work solving our complex problems, we would not see them every minute giving speeches, town halls, press meetings. THEY'D BE WORKING ON BEHALF OF THE CITIZENS!

    Citizens claim they want transparency in Washington. However they don't really have time and energy to see the sausage making, but everyone wants to see the sausage.

    November 14, 2011 03:29 pm at 3:29 pm |
  6. AlaskaPalin

    Cuts not tax! 300,000,000,000 from health care + 100,000,000,000 from foreign aid + 200,000,000,000 from education + 400,000,000,000 from welfare. Repatriate the 2trillion held of shore by giving cooperations the tax breaks that they need to do so. Allow the drilling or mining for fossil energy. America economy is guaranteed to soar with millions of jobs created if these measures are taken.

    November 14, 2011 03:32 pm at 3:32 pm |
  7. Silence DoGood

    It is not necessarily the smarts in in Wash DC. They know enough to keep the average American, with horrible math skills, off balance. I love how an article come out trimming "a million dollars" off the budget and people actually debate it as they have no clue that the Trillions involved are a million times bigger.

    As presidents, that is one thing Obama and Bush had in common – an slick ability to play on emotions so people by and large do not focus their pea-brains on the things that are actually taking place.

    Next time – vote for a 2nd party!

    November 14, 2011 03:43 pm at 3:43 pm |
  8. S.B. Stein E.B. NJ

    The problem is that the making of laws is so complicated because of the use of legal language rather than the use of plain language. Often times there is such small fine print put in based on a legislator's whim (be it personal or based on lobbyist request) that it makes it hard to get everything clean.

    @AlaskaPalin - Fossil fuels won't cut it because they are finite (they will end) and they polute causing enviromental damage. We need to do the R&D and hold onto the patents so that those new things can be made here.

    November 14, 2011 04:09 pm at 4:09 pm |
  9. Rudy NYC

    AlaskaPalin wrote:
    Cuts not tax! 300,000,000,000 from health care + 100,000,000,000 from foreign aid + 200,000,000,000 from education + 400,000,000,000 from welfare. Repatriate the 2trillion held of shore by giving cooperations the tax breaks that they need to do so. Allow the drilling or mining for fossil energy. America economy is guaranteed to soar with millions of jobs created if these measures are taken.
    ---------------
    Cutting that much health care would kill millions of jobs and PEOPLE.
    Cutting that much foreign aid would create pressure bubbles, which would eventually burst into full scale conflicts.
    Cutting that much from education would make us third world country within 5 years.
    Cutting that much from Welfare is impossible. We don't even spend that much one.

    GWB tried to repatriate the money from overseas. It didn't work out as planned, or was it promised. The reason that it is overseas in the first place is because they are waiting for the government to give them a tax break on moving it back to the U.S. Bush gave them those tax breaks, they accepted them, they bought the money back, and paid it all to investors without creating a single job (aside from who knows how many accountants and hedge fund managers).

    You are delusional if you think opening up drilling will help the American economy "soar" by creating "millions of jobs." What types of jobs would be created, and where would they be located? The only soaring that will take place will be the profits of people like the Koch Brothers.

    November 14, 2011 04:16 pm at 4:16 pm |
  10. Democrat Party - leftist "progressive" socialist communist losers hellbent on destroying the USA

    The problem is not their math skills. Their problem is spending money that is not theirs in order to get re-elected. Why they can just whip out the old China credit card or raise the taxes of somebody else and walla, you get a "freebie" that somebody else ends up paying for (the evil "rich" or more than likely our kids and grand kids) and they get hailed as a great person that needs to be re-elected.

    The Democrats have perfected this model. The fact that it is bankrupting cities, states and now the federal government is of little concern to them.

    November 14, 2011 04:39 pm at 4:39 pm |
  11. Sniffit

    Math provides absolute answers. Ergo, all pandering, spineless, waffling, lobbyist-bought, fact-denying, truth avoiders will run from it like religious fundamentalists run from science. You can throw up all the charts and graphs you want showing that about 2/3 of the national debt and deficit problems are numerically provable to be the result of the BUush tax cuts and other Republican policies and that they didn't create even 1/4 of the job growth Clinton created after raising taxes and they'll look yuo straight in the face and tell you that cutting taxes magically creates economic growth and jobs and somehow, through some unknown magical unicorn fart double-rainbow LSD-induced fantasy, actually increases government revenue despite the fact that you lowered the tax rates. And their base will simply nod their heads sagely as if this is a truth of the universe and then go back to watching Faux Noise and Joel Osteen revivals.

    November 14, 2011 04:40 pm at 4:40 pm |
  12. AlaskaPalin

    Whats sickening is that within all of these programs are hidden other welfare programs. Who is paying for all of this mainly the middle class and the rich. What's also vexing is that some of these welfare programs are politicians pet programs used to garner votes. First; Draconian cuts to these monstrousities in dollar terms and only then will it be reasonable to look at revenues- not in terms of maintaining these unsustainable monstrosities but in terms of creating long term employment for the american people.

    November 14, 2011 04:50 pm at 4:50 pm |