The United States House of Representatives is an institution under considerable stress. Beyond the polarizing and oft-noted partisanship on constant display, the deliberative process that should be the hallmark of the House has increasingly been abandoned. Power is overly centralized. Elections are less competitive and more influenced by money despite decades of campaign finance laws. Members spend less and less time in Washington, and often fail to legislate or conduct oversight as if they truly consider their institution a co-equal branch of government. And these trends are not unique to one Congress or one party; they have been developing, and worsening, over a period of years.
It is thus an opportune time to turn to Robert Remini’s sweeping new study, The House: The History of the House of Representatives, to better understand this peculiarly American parliament. Remini does the House, and the country, a great service. By tracing the history of the United States from the vantage point of the House—from the inauguration of President George Washington to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton—Remini conveys with certainty one overarching point: The House matters.
As a member, it is hard not to feel that you are a bit player on a grand historical stage. I got that first sense of history when I participated in floor debate over the future of our involvement in Vietnam, or cast votes on the creation of Medicare and Federal aid to education. I also sensed it over the years as I came to know hundreds of other members who represented the vastness and diversity of the United States. Open Remini’s book to any page, and you will quickly get the sense that what has taken place in the House chamber has both reflected the American experience and helped shape it.
Remini is particularly good on the pre-Civil War years. This should come as no surprise, as he is an accomplished biographer of Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. Reading his early chapters, it is hard not to be impressed that the central questions of our early Republic—the nature of the Federal government, the establishment of a system of revenue and spending, the expansion of American territory, the future of slavery—were debated and decided as much by the House as by any other institution of government. Clay himself once left the Senate to join the House, and John Quincy Adams ran for a House seat after his presidency. Try to imagine any American politician taking a similar path today.
Another strength in Remini’s institutional biography is that he conveys the color along with the consequence of the House. He is an entertaining writer, and his extensive research is complemented by an eye for the telling anecdote. In the run-up to the Civil War, Remini points out that more and more members armed themselves when they came to work. During Prohibition, while Congress had voted for temperance, members went as far as enlisting an “official and exclusive bootlegger” who eventually serviced members out of a House office building. In these, as in so many other instances, the House was both legislating and reflecting the contours and contradictions of American public opinion.
Remini draws effective portraits of the towering figures in the history of the House, and uses quotes to particularly good effect. For instance, he depicts Sam Rayburn—the longest serving Speaker and a stern taskmaster—thundering in one debate: “The Chair does not intend to have his word questioned by the gentleman from Minnesota—or anyone else.” He also relates a story of how Rayburn implored Adam Clayton Powell, the flamboyant African-American congressman from Harlem, to resist “throwing bombs” upon his election to Congress. Powell replied: “Mr. Speaker, I’ve got a bomb in each hand, and I’m going to throw them right away.”
Remini ably connects the politics and personalities of the House to resulting policies. In one well-told example, he relates how programs on civil rights, housing, education and the minimum wage repeatedly died in the Rules Committee, chaired by Howard W. Smith (D-VA), before they could be considered by the full House. After the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, Rayburn set out to change that, and appealed to just enough southern Democrats to eke out a 217–212 vote to increase the size of the Rules Committee. The end result was, in part, the flood of 1960s legislation. Again Remini makes effective use of quotation, citing Carl Albert’s summation, “Howard Smith was a gentleman of conscience and a legislator of brilliance, but in the end he was just a mean old man.”
While Remini’s book is colorful and comprehensive, it is not without flaws. A careful read stumbles upon some inaccuracies (for instance, Tom Foley entered the House in 1965, not, as Remini reports, 1975). For his recent history, it is evident that Remini depended upon a small circle of sources who are frequently quoted, and whose comments drive Remini’s interpretations of the major events of the 1980s and 1990s. Indeed, his tendency to tell the story of the House through the lens of a handful of key figures can lead to a slanted or incomplete picture, albeit often an enjoyable one.
Yet the most substantial shortcoming is the absence of a connection between the rich history that Remini tells and the myriad ways in which today’s House is not keeping faith with that history. In his epilogue, he gives a mere once-over to contemporary problems, related, perhaps, to the fact that the House itself commissioned his book. He could be more overt and comprehensive in pointing out the fundamental ways in which the developments of the last quarter century pose grave risks to the conduct of American democracy.
The truth is, the House has developed atrocious habits. One is, as Remini does points out, the fact that members only spend two or three days a week in Washington. But the larger backdrop is a breakdown in the deliberative process that guarantees that all legislation is carefully scrutinized, and all voices heard. Take the abominable habit of passing gigantic appropriations rolled into one omnibus bill. In 2004 an $820 billion omnibus bill came to more than 3,000 pages and landed on lawmakers’ desks just a day before they were slated to vote up or down on the entire bill. Measures were included that had never been debated or brought through a hearing, including a record 12,000 individual projects and earmarks. Not exactly the deliberative lawmaking envisioned by the Founders.
Remini concludes that “the proceedings of the House are much more open, much more public” today. I wonder about that. Floor debate and committee hearings are open to the public and televised. But the key decisions are often made completely out of public sight: The House leadership and its staff draft legislation and slip provisions into bills that would not pass if they were submitted to the sunlight of deliberative process, and major decisions are made outside the public conference committees between the House and Senate. Much of the debate that is put up for public consumption is merely showmanship designed to embarrass the opposition, not to advance serious policy proposals.
Another bad habit is the exclusion of the minority party. In today’s House, the minority is virtually irrelevant, with limited opportunity to offer amendments or engage in debate. This effectively shuts nearly half of the American people out of “the people’s House.” Those looking for an alternative could do worse than reading Remini’s description of James Madison’s approach:
Directing the majority in the House to run roughshod over opposing views was not the way to go. By acceding, where possible, to other proposals or suggestions put forward by Anti-Federalists or hostile voices, by building coalitions with members from different sections of the country, and by being conciliatory, he could complete a legislative program that would flesh out the Constitution and ensure its workability.
The House is also failing to live up to its historic role of conducting oversight of the Executive Branch. Good congressional oversight is fundamental to American democracy: It ensures that government is held accountable, policy refined and malfeasance ferreted out. Yet oversight is increasingly seen as tedious, unglamorous work—that is, unless it is being used to score political points. In the last few years, notable lapses in oversight include a failure to adequately probe pre-war claims regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or to assess the potential cost of the Iraq war, and passage of a Medicare Prescription Drug Plan that so far has cost over $100 billion more than the original estimates provided by the Executive Branch. The House also played a secondary role to the press in uncovering prisoner abuse in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, and has done next to nothing about the misconduct.
The bottom line is that no one today could make a coherent argument that the Congress is the co-equal branch of government the Founders intended it to be. Indeed, it is hard not to read some of Remini’s history without a sense of irony. He quotes James Madison as saying that it was “less necessary to guard against the abuse in the Executive Department . . . because it is not the stronger branch of government but the weaker.” Yet while Congress has the power to declare war, it has not done so since World War II, and it handed President Bush the ability to “use all means that he determines appropriate” to deal with Iraq six months before war began. While Congress has the power of the purse, it is the President who delivers a budget to Congress, about 90–95 percent of which is rubber-stamped.
Today, members are quick to fall into line in allegiance to the president, to their party or to their constituents. But there is less of a sense of responsibility to the institution to which they belong. And if members do not stand up for the institution, the interests of the American people will suffer. It was the genius of the Founders to recognize that freedom exists only when the peoples’ cares and concerns are represented in government. To guarantee that freedom, the minority has to be heard to guard against tyranny of the majority; deliberative process has to be followed to cool the passions of the moment; and robust oversight has to be conducted for a system of checks and balances to work.
Remini is an historian, not a critic, and so his work understandably stops short of delving into the details of today’s dysfunction. Yet it is my hope that any member of Congress picking up this worthy book will be reminded of the historic mission of the House to maintain freedom, and that the oath they took upon assuming office is not to a president, a party or even to constituents, but to a Constitution that says, right at the top: “All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in the Congress.”