Act of Congress: How America's Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn't

Image of Act of Congress: How America's Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn't
Release Date: 
April 16, 2013
Reviewed by: 

“Act of Congress should be essential reading.”

“Mos Eisley Spaceport. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.” Switch out the Congress for Mos Eisley and Obi-Wan Kenobi's quote still holds true.

Robert G. Kaiser, the veteran reporter for the Washington Post since 1963, has written Act of Congress: How America's Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn't, an account of Congress's attempt to craft legislation to fix the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression.

Mr. Kaiser follows the Byzantine processes and machinations of America's essential legislative body. Since this book involves legislation regarding Wall Street's irresponsible short-sightedness, reckless greed, and deregulatory mania, one should remember John Adams's assessment that, “All the perplexities, confusion and distresses in America arise not from defects in the constitution or confederation, nor from want of honor or virtue, as much from downright ignorance of the nature of coin, credit, and circulation.”

In order to dispel this “ignorance of the nature of coin, credit, and circulation,” Mr. Kaiser gives the reader plenty of available resources, including an index of the alphabet soup of financial regulatory bodies, the dramatis personae of Congress, staff, lobbyists, etc., and an index. Two main players in this drama are Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) and Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT). The reader meets their respective staff members, along with members of the opposition, notably Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL).

With the recent defeat of gun control legislation, most Americans are wondering how such a measure, with near unanimous public support, could fail.

Mr. Kaiser's book offers a very simple, albeit despairing answer to that question. Nor is the answer a single symptom, but an overall, self-induced sickness Americans have brought upon themselves. These include district gerrymandering in 2010, leaving citizens divided into liberal-heavy or conservative-heavy districts. A resurgent partisanship that began with Nixon's Southern Strategy and the politics of demagoguery and divisiveness.

Lobbying has always been a factor in Washington, DC, political life, but the recent Citizens United case has mutated K Street's courtiers into something called SuperPACs. The damage of the Crash and Great Recession could have been lessened had America not been so eager in repealing the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. So now America has been doubly blessed with the American foreign policy disaster of 9/11 and the American financial disaster of 2007.

What propelled Messrs. Frank and Dodd to craft important financial legislation had to do with circumstance, intelligence, passion, and seniority. Like their numerous counterparts in both bodies, both men were career politicians who knew how their respective legislative house worked. On several occasions, Congressman Frank regales Mr. Kaiser about how Robert Caro's Master of the Senate is his Bible. (Mr. Caro's Pulitzer Prize winning book is about Lyndon Baines Johnson, then Senate Majority Leader, pushing through the first piece of Civil Rights legislation since Reconstruction. Mr. Kaiser's Act of Congress is the yin to the yang of Mr. Caro's Master of the Senate.)

Mr. Kaiser's book traces the development and pitfalls of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, from President George W. Bush-era bank bailouts to the act's relatively muted passage into law. While President Obama's health care reform legislation took center stage in American public consciousness, the Dodd-Frank bill received second billing.

One reads how Mr. Kaiser was the only member of the Washington press corps in attendance at several key meetings. The problem is one of publicity. While the American public were out for blood when the global economy exploded like a pressure cooker, the fact is that same American public finds things like derivatives, financial regulatory bureaucracy, and the incomprehensible jargon of the Federal Reserve Chairman complex and ultimately boring.

The health care reform act had hyperventilating Cold War rhetoric about the bugaboo “socialism” and Obama killing grandma with his Nazi-esque “death panels.” Besides the sleep-inducing nature of financial regulation, the Democrats had to contend with a well-organized and ruthless opposition. The opposition manifested itself not only with the Republicans but with the “news and blues,” meaning the New Democrats (mainly moderates) and the Blue Dog Democrats (mainly conservative). How can success and any meaningful legislation be possible when the party enacting it has its own built-in Fifth Column?

Mr. Kaiser triumphs in his tale of lobbyists, Wall Street bankers, and the obstructionist Right. He makes the complex, bureaucratic, and incomprehensible story of writing financial reform legislation simple, clear, and exciting. Like Mr. Caro, Mr. Kaiser has a gift for writing a legislative page-turner.

He explains how “Wall Street money isn't the same as Washington money.” With a system rigged for permanent campaigning (since campaigns are fed on large contributions), permanent partisanship (thanks in part to the 24-hour news cycle), and the GOP ready to fight with the zeal and effectiveness of the Khmer Rouge, the reader sees how “fixing” the problem does not involve shoving a different set of politicians to replace the current set of politicians. The problems have now taken on a structural cast.

It is not just the rotating cast of cash-hungry politicians that are the problem, because now the United States has a government crippled by partisan division and has to endure a seemingly endless parade of crises (cliffs, ceilings, sequesters, etc.).

So unless one is an air traffic controller on a forced furlough or Terry Schiavo, Congress really does not care about the situation. Congressmen Frank and Dodd have since retired and Congress members on the verge of retirement seem to be only the legislators willing to take the chance for crafting legislation that could mean real substantive change.

Despite Congress's low approval rating and the recent American trend of registering independent, Congress is still reflective of the constituencies that elected them. Mr. Kaiser writes a despairing analysis of the legislative process, but as bad as it is, he holds up a mirror to what the United States has become.

For those who want to see real change in Washington and how the nation can extricate itself from the awful mess, Act of Congress should be essential reading. He turns a complex issue into a simple story. This should be a book on every informed voter's reading list.