We’ve all seen the place where our nation’s representatives gather – the giant rotunda with the gleaming white dome atop it. But what really goes on inside Congress where trillions of dollars are allocated and lawmakers wrestle over legislation that affects almost every facet of our lives?
Jennifer Briney is obsessed with that question. For the past decade, the host of the Congressional Dish podcast has been reading voluminous tracts of legislation line-by-line, delving into committee reports and watching countless congressional hearings where experts testify and are then promptly ignored. All this legwork informs a twice-a-month podcast where Briney takes a deep dive into a single topic – cryptocurrency, the Inflation Reduction Act, the U.S.’s long-running involvement in Ukraine – drawing exclusively on official congressional sources.
“My biggest problem is I have more content than I know what to do with,” she says with a laugh.
In a world flooded with clickbait, the average Congressional Dish podcast is an hour-and-a-half long and meticulously sourced – perfect for a long commute. In other hands, the material could be sleep-inducing. But Briney’s passion for her subject matter pulls listeners along as she gradually weaves together disparate story threads into a larger narrative.
The government, she insists, is a tool that can be used for good or ill. But for ordinary people to be able to effectively wield this tool, Briney notes, the first step is understanding how it works and in whose interest.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Indypendent: How did you become drawn to one covering Congress in such a unique way when most journalists on Capitol Hill are content to pass on what senior congressional leaders say and leave it at that.
Jennifer Briney: I became really interested in what my country was doing in the world in 2003 after it started the war in Iraq. I was studying abroad in Germany for six months. People were curious about what Americans thought and asked me questions in bars and restaurants and, to my embarrassment, I didn’t know the answers. I was of voting age and I should know this. Why didn’t I have the information?
When I came back, I started researching and was horrified. I blamed everything on George W. Bush. My father pointed out Bush couldn’t do anything without Congress’s approval and suggested I look there. When I started the podcast, I naively thought I could read every bill and let my listeners know what was up before Congress voted on it. That’s impossible because of the length of the bills and how little time there is to read them. It was a much harder project than I ever expected it to be. But that’s where I learned how many subjects are being legislated in these bills. By watching congressional hearings, I learned so much about our role in the world and what’s actually happening.
There is fascinating information that is given to Congress by experts who testify in these hearings. And it is shamefully ignored. I want to know all the backstory about an issue, to understand why they’re legislating the way they are. My biggest problem is I have more content than I know what to do with. It’s easier to cover the he-said-she-said among congressional leaders. And I understand the desire to go into political reporting and cover campaigns. But governance reporting is what I’m endlessly fascinated by.
These aren’t just lofty intellectual concerns you are exploring.
I am hoping to shine a light on some of this legislation that hurts the people that I love. And maybe give them a chance to do something about it, or at the very least to be aware of it so that they can be prepared. One of the episodes I’m really proud of that has saved my listeners thousands and thousands of dollars was released before surprise medical bills became illegal. People could go to a hospital that is in-network but the person that does your anesthesia could be out-of-network, or the emergency room doctor could be rented by the hospital and that doctor could be out of network and all of a sudden you’re getting $20,000 bills. That’s illegal now, but when I told people about that, I was getting emails from listeners who were saying they had no idea this was possible.
I did another show on pharmacy benefit managers. Most people don’t realize they own your pharmacy. So if you make sure your insurance stays inside that ownership structure you can save thousands of dollars on prescriptions. Our system is so ridiculous. But if you’re aware of how it works, there is financial power in that knowledge.
In a recent podcast, you looked at the train wreck in East Palestine, Ohio that poisoned the air and water of an impoverished corner of southern Ohio. For a week or two in March, it was the big national story. It gave corporate media the disaster porn and the partisan finger pointing it craves. And then it fell out of sight. By doing your deep dive into the congressional record, what did you learn that hasn’t been mentioned elsewhere?
I think the big picture story for me was the extent to which these companies are being allowed to govern themselves. From every angle that I looked at from who decides where sensors are put to who decides that a wheel bearing is too hot to who decides where the threshold is when the train has to stop to who decides which contractors are going to clean up the messes to who decides what how the victims are going to be compensated. All of those decisions are being left up to Norfolk Southern to the point that North Southern was the one that decided to burn five train cars full of vinyl chloride that went up in a mushroom cloud over this town. The EPA kind of sat back and said “Okay, we’ll do some modeling for you.”
One of the things that has shocked me in the decade that I’ve been doing this show is a line of thinking inside of Congress, that the private sector can always do everything better. We are seeing the consequences of this idea that the private sector can be trusted and the government cannot.
And this belief is shared by both parties?
It’s gospel to the Republicans. With the Democrats, it’s hard to tell if they go along with that position because they are so committed to bipartisanship, or if it’s what they really believe. They’re not as dogmatic as the Republicans, but they do tend to trust the private sector to do a lot of things the government used to do.
A lot of your work zeroes in on the corporate capture of Congress. How pervasive would you say that problem is, and what has your years of research taught you about the corporate capture of Congress that the general public might not realize?
It’s not just the large campaign contributions. One thing I don’t think the public fully appreciates is the influence of corporate lobbyists. A lot of times these are former members of Congress who have passed through the revolving door to the private sector where they get paid 10 times as much as they did when they were in Congress to go to work for the industries they used to regulate. And then they go back to Congress to talk with their friends and former co-workers. Just by human nature, you’re going to listen to your friends. You’re going to listen to the people that you served on a committee with. I believe that the government isn’t all-bad or all-good. It’s a tool. Unfortunately, the corporations have figured out how to use it in a way the public has not.
Congress also funds and carries out oversight of U.S. foreign policy. You’ve devoted many segments to exploring the various ways the U.S. government acts as a facilitator for corporations to enter other countries’ markets and do as they please. Can you talk more about the “world trade system” that the U.S. has shaped and led since the end of World War II and how it works.
My eyes were really opened to this globalized economic system when I studied a bill to repeal country-of-origin labels for beef and chicken. The goal of the bill was to stop telling Americans where their food was coming from. I looked at this and thought “who wouldn’t want to know where their food comes from?”
That’s when I learned about the investor-state dispute system established under the World Trade Organization that requires each participating country to treat companies from other countries the same as your own. Thus requiring more paperwork for these foreign companies to keep track of where their meat came from was ruled to be unfair. From there, I dove into how the U.S. played a key role in establishing the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund at the end of World War II and then in the 1990s the World Trade Organization. All with the goal of creating a global economic system that we the people have no say in nor do people in other countries. We need to name these institutions, understand them, do what we can to change the structure.
A lot of my investigations started with “Why would we do this?” And if the goal is to go in there to extract resources, who benefits? Who benefits are the shareholders of those companies. Because there are so many of us that have no stake in the stock market whatsoever we’re just footing the bill for a few to get rich off the many.
It seems we’re at a moment when the established order is starting to crack up.
What I’m seeing in the world is that Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, the BRICS countries, are creating a whole separate system. We’ve been pretty bad stewards of the current system, which I think the world learned in 2008. The U.S. has used its leadership in the world trade system in such an aggressive way that there are other powerful countries that are determined to forge an alternative.
Not that the U.S. is going to give up easily. You had a brilliant episode in February about how the U.S. has been pulling out all the stops behind the scenes to keep the small South American nation of Ecuador in its orbit. This includes beefing up support for Ecuador’s armed forces. And then a couple of months later, that country’s pro-U.S. president dissolved parliament, announced he would rule by decree and the military gave him their blessing.
It’s wild, like you see a country listed in the annual defense authorization bill. And within a year or two crazy things happen. Despite these kinds of efforts, it remains to be seen if the U.S. can recover the position in the world it is accustomed to. Since the Ukraine War began, the BRICS system has sped up so fast. France, for example, is doing deals with Brazil in reals. I’ve gone from documenting how the U.S. is sucking all these countries into its world trade system to now watching the U.S. try to hold on by its fingernails to what it already has. It’s incredible to watch this happen in real time but also scary because the U.S. may become desperate enough to resort to war to reassert its position as the world’s dominant power.
Where do you see change coming from?
I think change is coming from outside the U.S. As for my generation, I don’t think it needs to rule the world, and isn’t all that excited about spending this enormous amount of money protecting the shipping lanes of transnational corporations. Why do I have to sacrifice getting health care from my taxes to make sure that Pepsi can safely get through the Strait of Taiwan?
Meanwhile, you’re doing this work without any corporate sponsorships.
I feel like independent journalism is getting us more and more accustomed as consumers to supporting the different outlets we turn to for news and analysis. You can have your establishment news brought to you by Boeing and Pfizer and General Motors or you can help support something better than that. For myself, I support at least 20 different news entities. I know people care about the kind of news they are getting because I’m still doing this work 10 years later in a crowdfunded way.