Experiencing Politics: A Legislator's Stories of Government and
Health Care, by John E. McDonough. University of California Press, 342
Toward the end of this useful handbook on the politics of lawmaking,
the author laments the dearth of novels and films about what really goes
on inside legislatures. After all, it is through popular art that the
broad public is exposed to unfamiliar worlds. And, says John E.
McDonough, "The breadth of what legislators do is simply astounding, far
beyond what most citizens understand."
It's an interesting thought, but it's hard to imagine Tom Hanks and
Meg Ryan as members of the Ways and Means Committee struggling over tax
policy and then making time at the end of the day to answer constituent
mail. McDonough's book, though it has its dramatic moments, does not
quite make the case that hammering out fine points of public policy is
the stuff of which great art--or even popular cinema--is made.
Still, he is persuasive when it comes to the "breadth of what
legislators do." He has collected from his 13-year career in the
Massachusetts legislature a trove of well-told stories, ranging from
work in his district with a street gang called "the X-Men," to battles
for tenants rights, campaign finance reform, expanded health insurance,
and against the death penalty. McDonough, who since 1998 has been a
specialist in health care policy at the Heller School at Brandeis
University, was an unabashedly progressive member of the Massachusetts
House, yet one who had a driving passion to enact legislation and, thus,
to understand the ways of compromise and relationship building.
McDonough learned a lot in his years of practicing politics. His book
is partly memoir, written in a relaxed, engaging voice. As one would
expect from an Irish-American politician representing Boston, there are
good anecdotes sprinkled throughout. And there is no shortage of strong
characters, with former Massachusetts governors Michael Dukakis and
William Weld playing roles, as well as a string of House Speakers of
varying degrees of competence and dictatorial tendencies. He avoids a
common pitfall of this genre: He doesn't cast legislators as poor,
put-upon public servants who are unappreciated by the ignorant ingrates
in the citizenry--although ignorant ingrates make frequent appearances
in his stories, especially as he recounts the state's fiscal meltdown in
the 1990-1991 recession.
In addition, McDonough combines quite a bit of book learnin' here, as
he seeks to understand the chaotic forces that can swirl inside the
political arena. Somehow he completed work on a doctorate degree in
public health while serving in the legislature--an experience of
"learning backward," as he puts it. While he was at it, he became "a
scavenger" for useful theories and models devised by political
scientists to explain legislative politics. He employs these models in
conjunction with detailed accounts of his efforts in the legislature.
The effect is similar to listening to an unusually skilled professor,
one who is more grounded in reality than most. His book is the rare one
that can be described as pleasantly pedantic.
McDonough makes easy work of the old conundrum about whether
representatives in a democracy are supposed to function as "delegates,"
voting as their constituents wish, or as "trustees," following their own
consciences. In real life, he says, it is not an either-or choice for
legislators. Sometimes it's one, sometimes the other--and some
legislators act as delegates most of the time, while others seldom do.
As well, McDonough is attentive throughout to the importance of powerful
stories and ideas as determinants of whether legislative campaigns win
or lose. In analyzing the failure of health care plans at the state and
national levels in the 1990s, he pinpoints the essential weakness of the
ideas that liberals were pushing. (In the case of the Clinton plan, it
was so complicated even proponents had a hard time grasping it.) In
contrast, McDonough shows how he was able to help enact a bill expanding
health insurance to children by increasing tobacco taxes. The concept
was compelling, and he benefited from seizing just the right "window of
opportunity," another lesson he derives from academic work that argues
major change is possible only at certain propitious times.
One of the ironies of politics in our open society is that most of
what goes on in legislatures is closed to the public. Not only is the
process baffling to unschooled observers, but the real decisions are
usually made in tightly controlled circles. McDonough is one of many who
are concerned about the "dispiriting cynicism" that he believes is
"rooted in misunderstanding of essential features of our public
institutions." Books like his are valuable for the light they shine on
the inner sanctums of power, and the franker they are, the better. It's
not that the politician-hating cynics will read his book, but it ought
to be read by students of politics, and especially by elected officials.
They could learn from McDonough's practical insights into effective
legislating and, too, from his understanding of the democratic arts. The
conversation he has here with the reader is precisely the kind of
conversation every leader ought to be having with citizens. Among the
jobs legislators (and journalists, for that matter) need to do better is
to explain how lawmaking really works. It may not make great art, but
there is an art to doing it well.