THE U.S. CONGRESS: A VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION
By Donald A. Ritchie
Oxford University Press, $11.95, 146 pages
“I am going to Texas, and you can go to hell,” was the kiss-off line Rep. Davy Crockett had for his Tennessee constituents after they failed to re-elect him in 1834. Crockett’s post-congressional career was short but immortal. In Texas, he went to an early death at the Alamo that was arguably far more significant than anything he could have accomplished had he stayed in Congress.
The quote comes from Donald A. Ritchie’s “The U.S. Congress: A Very Short Introduction,” the 244th volume of Oxford University Press’ Very Short Introductions series. The judgment has to come from elsewhere. Mr. Ritchie is a diligent historian with an ear for quotes that illuminate, but this is the institutional view of Congress, owing to the author’s employment as official historian of the U.S. Senate.
This institutional outlook is both the book’s strength and its weakness. Mr. Ritchie remembers things that most of us have forgotten, to put it politely. Did you know that for its first six years, the Senate met entirely in secret or that senators are expected to carve their names in their desks? Or how about this one: The sergeant-at-arms for the House of Representatives “carries into the chamber the House mace, a forty-inch silver shaft topped by an American eagle, a design derived from ancient Rome, via the British Parliament. … If tempers flare and disturbances erupt, the sergeant at arms restores order by lifting the mace high as a symbol of the dignity of the House.”
The very next sentence is as close as Mr. Ritchie ever comes to blatantly asserting the superiority of his half of the legislature over the sometimes mobocratic House: “The smaller, more sedate Senate has never found the need for a mace.” (Tut, tut.)
The result of his efforts is a good, short primer on how Congress operates. It will be shocking if this is not widely adopted in political science classrooms in the United States and much of the rest of the world. It is short, cheap and readable and comes from a publisher with the right pedigree. For that reason, it is worth pointing out that in making the case for Congress, Mr. Ritchie sometimes goes too far and that his institutional bias keeps him from seeing the validity in much criticism of Congress.
In explaining the tension between popular government and longer-run concerns, Mr. Ritchie reaches for the story of one-term Pennsylvania Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky. Hers was the tie-breaking vote in the House for President Bill Clinton’s 1993 economic package, which included some spending cuts as well as hated tax increases.
She had come out against the bill but was brought around when Mr. Clinton called her and warned her that “the fate of his presidency hinged on her vote.” When Mrs. Margolies-Mezvinsky voted for the bill, Mr. Ritchie says, “she heard other representatives calling out ‘Bye-bye Marjorie.’ ” They were right about that, but her defeat is not portrayed as a validation of popular government.
Mr. Ritchie explains, “Although the economic plan succeeded, Margolies-Mezvinsky lost her race for re-election. Reviewing her single term, she felt the question that she had to answer was: ‘Do you represent or do you lead? In the end, one must put aside all the chatter, noise, all the headlines, all the calls, close the door to your office, and make a very tough and often unpopular choice.’ “
That explanation is awfully self-serving, and Mr. Ritchie shouldn’t have let her get away with it. (Set aside for a second his use of the word “succeeded” to describe Mr. Clinton’s economic package. After all, he could simply mean that the bill passed.) The former congresswoman’s choice was “unpopular” because it was the wrong one, and her vote wasn’t leadership but lackeydom.
Make no mistake: The country was mired in debt before the bill passed, and after. It was only massive voter disgust with her and many of her Democratic colleagues that ushered a new, radical, Republican Congress into office in 1994. This was a flawed crop of politicians who nevertheless put the nation on the path to actual balanced budgets and came only one vote shy of writing that requirement into our Constitution. If only they’d succeeded.
Jeremy Lott is an editor for Real Clear Politics and author of “William F. Buckley” (Thomas Nelson, 2010).