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The American Congress: The Building of Democracy Hardcover – September 21, 2004

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About the Author

Julian E. Zelizer, Ph.D., is a Professor of History at Boston University. He is author of ON CAPITOL HILL: THE STRUGGLE TO REFORM CONGRESS AND ITS CONSEQUENCES, 1948-2000, Taxing America: Wilbur D. Mills, Congress, and the State 1945-1975 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998), which won the Organization of American Historian's 2000 Ellis Hawley Prize and the Lyndon B. Johnson Foundation's 1998 D.B. Hardeman Prize. He is author of dozens of publications, articles, book chapters, and book reviews on American government, esp. Congress, and is a prominent young scholar in the American history world.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


When the Texan Sam Rayburn served as Speaker of the House of Representatives during the 1940s and 1950s, he met with select Democrats every late afternoon and early evening in what observers called “the Board of Education.” The Democrats assembled in a former committee room tucked away under the Speaker’s lobby on the ground floor of the Capitol. Approximately twelve feet square with an elaborately decorated ceiling, the walls were covered with signed photographs of famous politicians, a formal portrait of Rayburn, the flags of Texas and the United States, and a few of Rayburn’s favorite cartoons. Sitting in an oversized chair that stood behind a long desk, the taciturn Rayburn would loosen up as he talked with the Democratic colleagues who made up his inner circle. They ranged in age and ideology from the abrasive and aggressive Georgian Eugene Cox—a staunch anti–New Deal conservative who nonetheless helped Rayburn as a powerful Democrat on the House Rules Committee—to the populist Texan Wright Patman, who was so trusted that he received a personal key to the room. Even though he was physically small and unassuming, Rayburn commanded enormous respect by relying on informal relationships to influence decisions in an era when southern committee chairs dominated the chamber. Lewis Deschler, the House Parliamentarian whose immense knowledge of parliamentary procedure made him an invaluable asset to Rayburn, was a fixture at these gatherings. A few trusted news reporters attended, but only under the strict understanding that conversations were off the record. While drinking bourbon and playing cards on the long leather couch and eight chairs that filled the room, Democrats debated the nation’s biggest issues.
The Board of Education is a landmark in congressional history. Scholars of Congress speak about this room with the same respect shown when presidential experts discuss the Oval Office. It was in this room that a deeply divided Democratic party hashed out difficult compromises on controversial issues ranging from Cold War foreign policy to civil rights for African Americans. This was where Vice President Harry Truman received the call to become president in 1945 when Franklin Roosevelt passed away and where the young Lyndon Johnson strove to ingratiate himself with the Speaker’s drinking circle. In many ways it was like the closed rooms of other congressional eras: a place where senators and representatives could meet and do the hard business of a legislature: discuss, deal, compromise, and finally agree to act on the nation’s problems.
Yet the Board of Education, and the individuals who met there, have generally escaped historical attention. Overshadowed by presidents and social movements, legislators remain ghosts in America’s historical imagination. Tourists visiting Washington, D.C., enter the White House with a strong sense of the history of the presidents who lived there. Many Americans are familiar with the lineage linking George Washington to George W. Bush. Although the Supreme Court is less familiar, a popular narrative centers on the Chief Justices. Unlike the presidency and Supreme Court, however, Congress remains much of a mystery. While many Americans know about a handful of prominent representatives and senators, few have been exposed to a history of the institution as a whole. Most individuals are likely to think of Congress as an amorphous, messy, and chaotic body. At worst, many envision the Congress as depicted in the film Bulworth, in which Warren Beatty plays a senator who once marched for civil rights but who had been morally destroyed by an institution dominated by corrupt individuals and crooked interest groups. Some experts lament that Congress is not what it used to be, but they seem to have little sense of what those times were actually like.
This lack of knowledge is unfortunate. Congress is the heart and soul of our democracy, the arena where politicians and citizens most directly interact over pressing concerns. Frequently, commentators joke that legislation resembles sausage: the taste may be good, but people do not want to see how it was made. The very messiness of congressional decisions, which is often lamented by commentators, reflects the diversity and richness of the nation. As the Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson once argued: “Government is like a pump and what it pumps up is just what we are, a fair sample of the intellect, the ethics, and the morals of the people—no better, no worse.” In Congress, grand policy proposals are created by politicians responding to the nation’s economic, social, sectional, cultural, and political interests. Its members attempt to placate diverse portions of the population and broker complicated compromises between the myriad of voices to find concrete solutions to the nation’’’’’s most pressing problems. The histories of the House and Senate demonstrate the great virtue of the legislative process is, namely, its ability to create innovative policies through difficult compromise. Yet Congress has also been the source of democracy’s greatest vices, plagued by scandal, insular deliberations, rampant corruption, and bitter partisanship.
The size, messiness, virtues, and vices that make Congress so interesting also create enormous barriers to our understanding the institution. Unlike the presidency, Congress is difficult to conceptualize, with up to 535 members who are constantly rotating in and out. In many respects, moreover, the House and Senate are two distinct institutions, each with its own story. In contrast to the presidency, where the succession of individual leaders creates its own chronological narrative, the structure of Congress makes the crafting of a coherent history challenging.
Furthermore, there are many histories of Congress. For example, there is the internal development of the legislative process (committees, seniority, norms, etc.), as well as the relationship between internal process and external forces. There is also the question of leadership, in its many forms. For example, one study might focus on the history of party leaders in Congress, but another could center on the formidable and independent role played by committee chairs or independent mavericks. As a result, historians have focused on specific legislators and on critical conflicts at different moments in congressional history.
Given all these complications, we believe the best way to understand congressional history is to study the institution in action and what has emerged from that action. Because its job is to make law, the successes and failures of Congress can best be understood by examining seminal moments, when legislators had to make important decisions. Written by thirty-nine of the nation’s leading historians and political scientists, the chapters in The American Congress therefore revolve around events, not individuals, although each chapter also covers a broad range of legislators, procedural issues, and policies that defined Congress at different moments. Thus, the collective nature of Congress, rather than the individual- centered history that is more appropriate for the presidency, is underscored. Seen from this legislative perspective, many of the events with which we are most familiar—such as the Constitutional Convention, slavery, or the New Deal—look quite different.
Despite the diverse issues and approaches that make up the history of Congress in this volume (and the conflicting interpretations among the authors), several themes recur. One is the changing relationship between the legislative, judicial, and executive branches, which has been a defining tension in American politics. We see how Congress evolved from the time it was the central institution in government to the period when legislators fought for power with an expanded executive branch in the twentieth century, as well as an assertive judiciary that was willing to interfere in legislative business. Another theme, just as significant, will be the importance of the internal structure of the House and Senate to legislative history. In Congress, policy and process have always been intertwined, and changes in the internal structure have been dramatic.
A third theme is the changes in the intermediary institutions—the vital organizations such as political parties, civic associations, interest groups, and the mass media—through which citizens and politicians have communicated. Since the American Revolution, the nature and power of these organizations have shifted, and the story of Congress has shifted with them.
Another theme is political power. We will show that Congress has not been a solely reactive institution, entering the political fray only after the president, courts, or events have initiated action. Rather, Congress has always played an active role in shaping politics, government policy, and public life.
A fifth theme is that Congress has been an active force. Many historians have downplayed the role of Congress because they see it as a passive institution whose members usually react to the pressure bearing down on them. To understand the prime movers in American political history, historians have looked to the White House, experts, or to social movements. But in fact, although Congress is extraordinarily sensitive to democratic pressure, the members of Congress have also been able to initiate their own policy proposals, develop their own agendas and interests, and form their own distinct institutional identity. Indeed, the search and evolution of this identity have been at the heart of congressional history.
Sixth, many of the essays touch on an ongoing controversy about the nature of representative government everywhere: should legislators simply voice directly the desires of the citizens they represent, or should they decide what policies ...

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