Robert Kaiser’s book “Act of Congress” is a short but useful primer on how Congress works–or doesn’t work–here in this early part of the century. Kaiser is a veteran DC reporter and writer, and he’s connected to the elite DC that enables him to get regular access to the power players in Congress and the Administration.
His book uses the financial reform effort after the housing market crash as a way of showcasing the inner-workings of Congress. He secures unprecedented access to Chairmen Barney Frank and Christopher Dodd, and importantly, their staffs, to detail how the bill came together and passed what eventually became the Dodd-Frank bill, named in honor of the two chairmen.
The topic was interesting to me because of what I do for a living. I had even lobbied on an issue that wound up in the bill and that was described in the book.
And maybe that’s why the book was somewhat unsatisfying to me–because it describes a process I’m pretty familiar with. Granted, to many, this is the “unseen Congress,” so in that regard, this could be useful to those who want to get past “Schoolhouse Rock’s” version of how a bill becomes a law. This is a great book for a political science student or someone headed to DC to intern for a member of Congress.
The book is told almost exclusively from the point of view of Barney Frank and Chris Dodd. That’s somewhat of a miss from my point of view–the Democrats were firmly in charge during those days, yes, but the GOP played a role in shaping the process. But it is probably also a necessity. It does feel to me that Frank and Dodd gave access and the result was that they got to be the protagonists. I suspect someone with a conservative view would feel like this book is too liberal in its perspective.
Kaiser hits on familiar themes: influence of lobbyists (yawn), power of money (not exactly new) and political motives trumping policy motives (there’s gambling going on here?). I’m not saying each isn’t an issue worthy of discussion, I’m just saying it’s well-trod ground.
There are a few themes that I think are helpful to veterans and newbies alike. Kaiser repeatedly (and he can’t do this enough), notes the importance and power of staff. They are the real stars of this book–dedicated public servants looking to make things work better. They meet with hundreds of people a month trying to learn and understand the complex issues. I can’t give them enough credit. They do the real negotiations. I always tell people I bring with me–they may be 23 or 25, but they are often smarter than veterans of industry. Youth and brains.
Another theme is how much mood and emotion can drive events. We see how individual relationships, bruised egos and personal politics trump lobbyists seven days a week.
There were two passages I especially liked and are worth sharing. First is when Dodd is quoted eloquently after the bill cleared the Senate and his remarks are evidence that he believes the political process can still work:
“My father once said all politics is good manners…Do you pay attention to people? Do you listen? Do you pretend to listen? Being mindful of what are the factors that are going on in people’s lives that have an influence on what their decision-making process is. That’s what good manners are. So those calls, those times you spend with people, the socialization of the process has really had as much of an impact on how business is done here as anything else.”
That’s a great way to look at succeeding and getting things done in both politics and anywhere.
The second passage I really enjoyed was an interview with Barney Frank as he talked about making a deal with the community banks. It’s a great passage, and he cites Caro!
“That chapter in Caro about Lyndon as minority leader–there’s a very simple pattern. People think, well you [members of Congress] trade everything. No, you don’t do that. Whenever people ask you to do something, people whose votes you are ultimately going to need, you do it. You give them a real vested interest in being your friend. You be as helpful to them as possible, for nothing. so that when you go to them, it’s not just that you’re trading with them in a crass sense. They have an understanding that this is a very important relationship. So you build one-sided relationships, you do favors for people all the time, so they are invested in being your friend.”
Again, great philosophy about getting things done and accumulating power. People on the outside often think it is explicit quid-pro-quo or crass horse-trading. And that’s rare. At its best, politics is a people business more than a money business or a policy business. It’s about building trusted relationships that help you accomplish your goals.
In the prologue, Kaiser throws in one other gem that he learned from his years covering politics:
“The same politician can combine admirable qualities with dreadful ones, can demonstrate both pathetic human frailty and a keen interest in helping ordinary people, sometimes courageously, in the course of a career, or even the course of a week on Capitol Hill.”
Now that’s a beautiful truth about politics.
Thanks for reading.