Learning to speak geek

If Introduction to Macroeconomics proved challenging for any members of Congress while in school, the current economic crisis surely evokes bad memories.

“I feel like I’m back in college taking Advanced Economics,” Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) said of the constant studying he has taken on to keep up with the day’s hot topic. He said he has been inundated with economics-related materials lately.

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“I’m trying to read everything that comes across my desk,” he said.

It comes as no surprise that his tone resembles that of a frantic college student during finals week. McGovern and his colleagues, who come to Congress with varying degrees of economics and financial expertise, are being asked to solve one of the most paralyzing and unprecedented economic meltdowns in the country’s history — and quickly.

As a result, lawmakers are beefing up on their knowledge of the economy in new ways, looking for different sources of information and insight and sharing old tricks for how to gauge the country’s fiscal health.

“I’m watching a lot more CNBC,” said Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.).

It seems to be paying off; Fattah spoke easily and at length about a new bill he introduced to change the federal tax code to a transaction fee-based system, peppering his speech with terms like “derivative issues” and “comparative analysis.”

Fattah acknowledges that a lot of economic material can be “boring stuff,” but to other members who feel behind in their know-how, he offers this advice: “Stick to the basics. Read the budget document. I don’t think you have to look outside the institution.”

Some lawmakers are already heeding those words. Freshman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) says he has taken advantage of the Republican Study Committee (“They pepper you with information”) and also looks to House Budget Committee ranking member Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), a former economics analyst with a reputation as a fierce budget hawk, for guidance. Chaffetz, who ran his campaign on fiscal responsibility, says his new job so far has been easy.

“You just vote no,” he joked.

Other members might do well to channel the calm of veteran congressman and former businessman Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.).

“I’ve been through the ups and downs of the private sector,” he said coolly, recalling the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. He shared a tip: Businesses like Federal Express and UPS are great barometers for the country’s economic status, he said.

(At the very moment Mica mentioned FedEx, Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., whose district includes the company’s headquarters, passed by and voiced his agreement. “As Federal Express goes, so goes the nation,” he said.)

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), the chairwoman of the Joint Economic Committee, also advises her colleagues to look within Congress to boost their economic knowledge. Her committee’s website provides weekly digests, she pointed out.

Maloney also urges anybody and everybody to pay close attention to the old standby — the news.

“Read the papers,” she said. “It’s the story of the age.”

In the upper chamber, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) said freshman Democrats have been meeting weekly with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag for candid Q-and-A sessions.

“We can ask questions and listen,” he said, citing the meetings as one of his main sources for up-to-date economic information.

As for Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), she can forget about looking within government for more information on the economy. She doesn’t have to look outside her own home.

“My husband is an economist, so that helps,” she said. She’s talking about Joseph Shepard, a St. Louis-based real estate developer. “We talk all the time.”

If all else fails, there’s always Economics for Dummies, whose author, Vassar College Professor Sean Masaki Flynn, has a few of his own words of advice.

“In some sense, [members of Congress] have the best resources in the world, right?” he said. “Any of them can pick up the phone and get a meeting in a half an hour with a bright young thing from the [Federal Reserve].”

Yet Flynn thinks the best thing lawmakers can do to really get their fingers on the pulse of the economy is seek out unbiased opinions. Government economists, pounding out economic theory deep in the backrooms of a federal building, may be out of touch with Wall Street, and congressional staffers often view the information they hand up to their boss only through a political lens, he said.

The 35-year-old Flynn encourages lawmakers to look online for a wide variety of opinions on the economy.

“There’s a lot of really good op-ed pieces by people all over the spectrum who really don’t have a political ax to grind,” he said. “I would actually tell [lawmakers] to bypass their staffs and bypass the geeks at the Federal Reserve.”

In the midst of the harried study sessions, overwhelming economics meetings and late-night reading hours, members of Congress may do well to follow what McGovern considers his ultimate source for economics guidance.

“The best information comes from the people in my district,” he said. “It only works if it helps them.”