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Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics Paperback – April 18, 2011
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About the Author
Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) was, famously, the 28th President of the United States, a wartime Commander-in-Chief, and winner of the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize. Before, he was president of Princeton University and the governor of New Jersey. Less famously, earlier still, he was a practicing lawyer, an accomplished professor of political science and jurisprudence, and a prolific scholar and popular author. His books on civics, U.S. history, and presidential biography are classroom and historical classics.
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Wilson wrote this book in the mid-1880s, when the United States was inward-looking, building its railroads and fulfilling its "Manifest Destiny"--when foreign policy was a secondary concern. This made the legislative branch the more important and more powerful branch of the federal government. But it is more than that: because there is too much for the legislature (especially the House) as a whole to do, they split up into committees, and the chairs of these committees dictate what gets to the floor of the House and what doesn't. Thus individual members can be more or less impotent. The chairs of the committees also grant speaking time to some of the members who wish to speak on an issue they bring to the floor, but there is much less of this time available than anyone would like, so policy debate is mostly limited. This has the effect of minimizing the impact and importance of any single member of the House, such that they fail to get the kind of media attention and celebrity that a comparable figure in another government might get; with the ultimate result that Americans are almost completely disinterested in the inner workings of the House. Up to this point everything he has said remains true, and his explanation of these workings will yield tremendous insight to anyone who wishes to really know what the Ways and Means Committee, for instance, does and how it came to be this most powerful of all committees. It is not necessarily obvious on the surface.
Wilson further asserts that the Executive branch is impotent without the approval of the Legislature, especially as far as budgeting its operations goes. He looks at how budgeting here is both similar to and different from the process observed by Parliament and the British ministry and also compares it with France's process.
One particularly striking comment of his is that if Parliament refuses the British ministry on one of its budgetary demands, then it is viewed as rejecting that ministry's policy as a whole, and thus the ministry is expected to resign, whereas if the Secretary of the Interior can't get all of the money that he would want for a particular project, it is just assumed to come with the territory and he goes back to business the next day just a little less satisfied. Here he is still mostly right, except that conditions have changed and the Executive now is of far greater importance and relevance than the Legislature because the United States is such a powerhouse in world affairs; foreign policy is now of the greatest importance to the US, and it needs a strong President and Secretary of State. This began to change, of all times, during Wilson's own presidency, such that his inability to pass the League of Nations through the Senate--his over-preachiness, if you will--seems to stem from not knowing how to deal with these changed conditions, as opposed to his having analyzed anything wrong in this book (as one former teacher of mine claimed it must have, thus justifying his refusal to read it). Moreover the impact of the television and other forms of visual mass media have made an essential component of the Presidency to be his charisma, as opposed to any House member. And direct election of Senators has made the Senators subject to popular control (an enormous mistake and one that fundamentally altered our Constitution and has led to much damage), so that it has become much more difficult for the House and Senate to refuse the Executive's requests for money, thus incurring the displeasure of the people who voted for him more than for them.
Thus I highly recommend this book as a detailed study of the factual workings of Congress and the Federal government as a whole, while also acknowledging that its analysis is obsolete.
The prose is about as stirring as one of Wilson's speeches, that is to say: "not so much." As an inexpensive recap of some of Wilson's political thought (or lack thereof), and as a primary source of his writings and utterances, "A Study In American Politics" is a handy reference guide. Bear in mind, however, that Wilson does not set out to make an objective study of congressional government but to sway you toward his perception of one. The two are not the same.