Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, And How It Doesn’t
Robert G. Kaiser
Knopf, $27.95, 417 pages
May 7, 2013

In Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t, Washington Post journalist Robert G. Kaiser has a simple aim, as he explains in the preface: to “explain how the modern Congress works” (xviii), using the passage of Dodd-Frank financial reform bill as the backdrop. On this account, he succeeds admirably. The book takes the reader through the whole legislative process, explaining everything from the catalyst for change (in this case, financial crises of 2008) through the final step, securing Presidential approval. It explains how ideas for legislation are solicited and reviewed; how the Administration often originates important bills; how private sector representatives influence the process; how the committee system works; how the minority party can help or hinder the bill’s advancement; how Members of both Chambers debate; how party leaders can control a bill; how the House and Senate negotiate, and a host of other details. The whole process is clearly and coherently presented, thanks to the Dodd-Frank narrative.

Kaiser’s explanation of the legislative process is worthwhile both for those who live and work in Washington, and for those who do not. However, for those who are outside the capital’s orbit, he highlights two very important phenomena. The first is that most of the heavy lifting in Washington is done by congressional staff, not by the Members of Congress. Over the past several decades, Members have increasingly relied on their staffers’ expertise, rather than developing their own, and thus have ceded to them more authority over drafting legislation. Kaiser notes this fact of life numerous times, summarizing the situation neatly:

The idea that staff work should be essentially invisible was deeply rooted in the culture of Capitol Hill. Any advertisement of the real role of staff could undermine the image that members of the House and Senate worked hard to project (155).

This fact of life would probably astound—and enrage—many constituents, and it is essential to understanding the modern Congress. Constituents should keep it in the back of their minds when analyzing the fruits of the legislative process or Congress in general.

The second notable fact of life that is probably just as shocking to the general reader is that money can’t buy a special interest love. Many people cynically conclude—or simply assume—that lobbyists can buy and sell Members of Congress, which “explains” all manner ills allegedly afflicting the government. It shows, to be sure, that corporate interests can be powerful. Kaiser notes, for example, that each year lobbying is a $3.5 billion industry, and that between 2009 and 2010, businesspeople affected by the financial reform spent three-quarters of a billion dollars. Yet the reality is much more complex. Lobbyists can, for instance, share their expertise on a topic, helping Members and staff understand the effects legislation will have in practice (153). Or one business can find itself opposing another business (307). Furthermore, private citizens are still powerful, even if they lack money. They can, for instance, express so much displeasure at the business world that Members will have no problem support populist initiatives, even if it results in poor policy (47, 292-293).  In the end, Kaiser concludes that the big banks “did a better job spending money on lobbying than they did on influencing the final version of Dodd-Frank” (379).

Many authors could write a book explaining the legislative process, but Kaiser’s is particularly noteworthy because of his unusual familiarity with his sources. Kaiser and former House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank have known each other since 1961, when they met at a conference during their college years, and have maintained their acquaintanceship since then. According to Kaiser, Frank actually suggested that he write a book on the political fallout from the financial crises and the Chairman provided exclusive interviews to the author, instructing his staff to do the same as well. Frank’s counterpart Senator Chris Dodd, Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, and his staff also spoke with Kaiser. This access provides fascinating insights into the various negotiations and private conversations that made this bill possible. He also had access to Republican lawmakers, and a couple of their staff members. Kaiser clearly relied more on his Democratic sources, which is understandable, since the minority is often locked out of the legislative process, but a greater balance would have made the book more interesting.

Kaiser has many sources, but that does not mean he is afraid to criticize the elected or their staffs. Many Members of Congress receive rather unflattering treatment, whether it be for their intelligence, personality, motivations for action, or for some other reason. On this account, he is bipartisan—not even the Democrats are immune from criticism. Barney Frank, however, seems to get off more easily than the others. The former Chairman comes across as a true hero in this book. Certain character flaws are mentioned—“Frank was delighted to be special and often eager to be rude” (18)—but these are minimized, since the overall tone is decidedly pro-Frank. (The book is littered, for instance, with claims like “Frank was trying to be an evenhanded chairman” [44] or “He wanted his Democratic members to feel they were important” [45]. Such statements might reflect Frank’s intent or aspirations, but the extent to which he lived up to them needs careful evaluation and admits of vastly different opinions.) Given Kaiser’s long-standing relationship with Frank, and the access the Chairman provided, the pro-Frank tendencies are understandable, but at times it still need to be tempered.