How Congress Acts

America's Congress: Actions in the Public Sphere, James Madison through New Gingrich, by David R. Mayhew. Yale University Press, 257 pages, $30.00

Why was the Clinton health care plan rejected by Congress in 1994? Was it because of big-money lobbying from the health insurance industry? Or was the plan doomed from the first because Americans--anti-statists to the bone--simply would not stand for "socialized medicine"? Perhaps there was more to it than those simplistic interpretations suggest. Maybe it was, in fact, a fine example of how Congress works and has always worked: with influential lawmakers, both attentive to and manipulating public opinion, ultimately laying the plan to rest. And maybe, given different leaders in Congress, it could have gone the other way, powerful lobbyists notwithstanding.

Political scientists--and in a more inchoate fashion, much of the public--tend to view individual members of Congress as little more than agents of the various special interests or public constituencies. But David R. Mayhew argues that they often act with a fair degree of autonomy from outside influences. It's the inner workings of Congress, in Mayhew's view, that can play a decisive role in determining how great national debates unfold.

"Whatever it is that motivates [members of Congress] to take stands," Mayhew writes in America's Congress, "sometimes they really do try to change the content of public opinion; ... some House and Senate members during the past two centuries have spent a great deal of energy trying to 'educate' not just their home constituencies but the entire country--and, so far as one can tell, often with effect."

Mayhew's argument is that the seemingly sclerotic, separation-of-powers functioning of the federal government--in which American political parties seldom receive decisive, unfettered mandates to pursue their programs--actually undergirds the rich public sphere of political contest and debate essential to the country's political culture. So-called responsible parties (disciplined political organizations operating in a streamlined political structure that, once elected, are able to enact their programs more or less intact) would simply never do in the United States. Americans, Mayhew writes, "would never accept a party linkage system taken straight. It would be too blunt and clumsy as a connection between voters and government, too centralized, too unsmart between elections, and too authoritarian between elections; citizens would see themselves as relegated to the status of subjects."

The implications of Mayhew's argument are many. And those who bewail the effects of polling on public life should take particular note. As the science of public-opinion research has become more precise and ubiquitous, American politics has been increasingly subject to the charge that it is in the midst of what might be called a crisis of statesmanship: Politicians are so addicted to polls, and so eager to follow them to ensure election, that nothing of principle or statesmanship is left in the process.

But Mayhew makes a good case to the contrary. Elected officials have a rather more complex relation to public opinion. Certainly members of Congress will seldom vote against the manifest wishes of their constituents on prominent issues. But the correlation between voting behavior and constituent views is an uncertain one. And, more important, skillful members of Congress can oppose, stymie, and pick apart legislation in ways that shape public debate. They can poke and prod at contradictory and ambivalent threads of public sentiment, pulling some to the fore and pushing others to the background.

The demise of the Clinton health care plan was certainly an instance of this. And so too, in a hoarier example, was the defeat of American membership in the League of Nations at the end of World War I. As Mayhew notes, the principal opponent of League membership, Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, was convinced that the "second thought" of the people would be with his side, even if the first thought wasn't. But to help the public to get to that second thought, Lodge and his cohorts needed to clog up the legislative mechanisms long enough and to sufficiently tease out the League's negative implications. One imagines a similar game plan animating the minds of congressional Republicans in 1993 and 1994.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Mayhew's study is his examination of how America's political "public sphere" has been affected by shifting trends in media and other changes external to Congress. Take the role of congressional investigations. Such investigations have long been a congressional hallmark; they constitute one of the legislature's most robust and autonomous sources of power. Yet the impact of these congressional probes has undergone a dramatic arc over the past century. The modern-day congressional investigation came into its own in the early 1900s as a sort of legislative analogue to journalistic "muckraking," which appeared at around the same time. Evidently, the popular-press culture that had come of age at the end of the nineteenth century made this sort of grand congressional exposé a potent political weapon--and the myriad abuses of nascent corporate capitalism provided plenty of muck to rake.

But equally striking, as Mayhew notes, is the decline of such endeavors over the past quarter-century. We have had many investigations of late--perhaps more than ever before (thank you, Dan Burton). But no congressional inquiry since the Church committee investigations of the CIA in 1975 has produced any tangible new revelations or deeply affected the course of the story at hand. In the hearings over Iran-contra in 1987 and impeachment in 1998, congresspersons and their staffs were reduced to picking through and regurgitating material that had already been thoroughly worked over by countless investigative reporters (and even Independent Counsel lawyers). The sound and fury of congressional investigators, which once had some consequence, really did signify nothing.

The change seems to signal an evolution in the nation's public sphere, which early in the century made Congress a powerful platform for a particular sort of political action but then, in a sense, outgrew it. Perhaps the multiplicity of media outlets and their armies of investigative journalists have simply outstripped Congress in the work of "gotcha" and exposé.

However that may be, it's fertile ground for further inquiry, into both the nature of America's public sphere and Congress's functioning within it. This is a challenge Mayhew never quite takes up. Again and again throughout the book, the material cries out for a deeper exploration.

And this points to the book's basic shortcoming. The study is based on a coded dataset of so-called congressional actions--roughly any public action of lasting consequence by a member of Congress, like legislating, taking a public stand on an issue, filibustering a bill, or impeaching a president. Mayhew systematically culled data from some three dozen well-established history texts covering the American republic (some covering all of both centuries, others focusing on specific eras) and compiled a list of actions as they appeared in these texts. In other words, his "data" are actions--some from as long as two centuries ago, as selected and distilled by historians writing in the past two generations. Mayhew is anything but indifferent to the problems of source bias this approach might entail. But there is a constant, jarring contrast between the precision with which the author analyzes the data and the fuzziness and uncertainty of the data itself, an inconsistency that no level of sensitivity to the problem can quite overcome. It's not clear what other tack he could have taken, given the broad scope of time involved and the difficulty of analyzing so much material in any other way. But the problem is no less real for the challenge of overcoming it. One wishes Mayhew would have given freer rein to the interpretive questions he raises and spent less time raking over in exquisite detail a collection of data so questionable and uncertain.

An intriguing book, America's Congress explores a key gap in the formal study of national politics and provides an instructive look into the dynamics of Congress. But in the end, it poses more questions than it answers. ¤