The Power of Congress

Roundup
tags: Congress, LBJ



Sam Tanenhaus, the author of “The Death of Conservatism,” is working on a biography of William F. Buckley, Jr.

The tension between big-tent inclusiveness and ideological purity has bedevilled our two major political parties for many years, but for Democrats it became especially vexing in the middle decades of the twentieth century. From 1932 to 1964, the Democratic Party won seven out of nine Presidential elections and enjoyed an almost continuous majority in the House and the Senate. But who, exactly, was winning and what did victory mean? The answer was clear in only two intervals. The first was the initial phase of the New Deal, when Franklin Roosevelt’s economic-rescue proposals were swiftly passed into law by Congress and embraced by a nation traumatized by the Great Depression. The second came during the three-year period after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, when Lyndon Johnson and Congress went on a legislative spree that ended with the midterm election in November, 1966.

“The Fierce Urgency of Now” (Penguin Press), Julian E. Zelizer’s account of wins and losses in the Johnson years, combines history with political science, as befits our data-happy moment. The information comes at us steadily—there are useful facts on almost every page—but the narrative is spartanly furnished. There’s little portraiture, not much drama, and only enough mood-setting context to let us know what America was up to while L.B.J. and Congress were contriving new ways to strengthen the social safety net and exhaust the national treasury. The emphasis falls instead on the high, and sometimes low, workings of legislative government, as bills inched through committees and subcommittees, nicked and scarred in “mark-up” sessions; the feint-and-parry of parliamentary maneuver; and, above all, the votes.

This patient no-frills approach offers illuminations that a more cinematic treatment might not. And if Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton, at times betrays the head-counting instincts of a House whip, well, head-counting is the nuts and bolts of congressional lawmaking, as scholars like Nelson Polsby and David Mayhew pointed out a generation ago, and as Ira Katznelson, Sarah Binder, and Frances Lee have done more recently. “Overshadowed by presidents and social movements, legislators remain ghosts in America’s historical imagination,” Zelizer observed in “The American Congress,” the large and very useful anthology he edited in 2004. Its analyses, by him and thirty-nine others, begin with the Continental Congress and go all the way up to the Clinton and Bush years—not likely to be known as the Gingrich or DeLay years, even as these scholars cut the Leaders of the Free World down to their proper constitutional size.

The idea of an imperial Presidency was always an exaggeration. “A President, these days, is an invaluable clerk,” Richard Neustadt, the dean of Presidential theorists, pointed out in 1960.The clerk at the time was Dwight Eisenhower, the general and war hero twice elected in landslides, only to be frustrated, like so many popular Presidents before and since, in skirmishes with well-organized adversaries on Capitol Hill. Congressmen were the heavies then, just as they are today. And yet, however much we say that we dislike our representatives, we keep sending many of them back to Washington. Together, Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid, each his party’s leader in the Senate, have spent fifty-eight years there. In the House, John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi have logged a combined fifty-two. These four, and some others, compose our democracy’s only long-term elected class.

What distinguished L.B.J. from almost all his predecessors and successors was his profound rootedness in Congress, where he spent a dozen years in the House and another dozen in the Senate. As Majority Leader, he became as famous as a senator could be, thanks to his resourcefulness and his genius for compromise and his almost feral magnetism. But it was seldom clear what L.B.J. really wanted, apart from dominating the game and intimidating the other players. Robert Caro has turned the question over on a spit in four immensely detailed volumes and still seems undecided. Real-time observers were mystified, too. “The test will come when he runs out of ideas,” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., remarked in August, 1964. “Up to this point he has been living intellectually on the Kennedy years.” A year later, L.B.J. had signed Medicare and the Voting Rights Act into law, seven days apart....




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