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The best books on Congress

recommended by Julian E. Zelizer

Interview by Eve Gerber

Is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell just as important as President Trump? Julian E. Zelizer, Princeton historian and CNN Political Analyst, thinks so—and he argues that to understand American politics, you have to understand Congress. He recommends the best books for getting to grips with the nuts and bolts of the Senate and House of Representatives.

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Julian E. Zelizer

Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. One of the pioneers in the revival of American political history, he is the author and editor of 19 books on American political history, including Taxing America: Wilbur D. Mills, Congress, and the State, 1945-1975—winner of the Ellis Hawley Prize for Best Book on Political History and the D.B. Prize for Best Book on Congress—On Capitol Hill: The Struggle to Reform Congress and its Consequences, 1948-2000, Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security—From World War II to the War on Terrorism, Jimmy Carter, Conservatives in Power: The Reagan Years, 1981-1989 (co-authored with Meg Jacobs), Governing America: The Revival of Political History and The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society, winner of the D.B. Hardeman Prize for Best Book on Congress. His latest book, co-authored with Kevin Kruse, is entitled Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.

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Today’s Congress is known for gridlock, grandstanding, and gerrymandering, and endless bickering, posturing and fundraising. But was it always that way? Could you brief us on the story told in your canonical account of how the institution evolved, American Congress: The Building of Democracy?

That book—which brought together some of the country’s best historians and political scientists—showed the ways in which Congress has impacted all the big moments in American history: the end of slavery, industrialization and urbanization, the Great Depression, the creation of the New Deal and the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960s. We tend to focus on presidents, but in moments of crisis or great social challenge, Congress has often been the institution that brought resolutions to the tensions that existed in society.

“The Constitution assigned to Congress the most consequential power of government: the power to declare war”

The President was not meant to be the most important figure in American politics; Congress was created to be the dominant source of political decision-making. Colonists rebelled against (and remained fearful of) centralized power. So, the Constitution assigned Congress the power to raise revenue from American citizens, the power to tax them, and the power to make decisions about how money should be allocated. And the Constitution assigned to Congress the most consequential power of government: the power to declare war. Though it ceded some power over time, the primacy of Congress was a key feature of American democracy.

In American Congress, you break down the history of the institution into four periods.

Part of the challenge in writing about Congress is thinking about how you do the chronology. When writing about the American presidency, it’s very clear—presidents serve one or two terms (or in FDR’s case, four.) But with Congress, it’s messy. You have two chambers; people are elected at different moments.

So, I decided to define different eras based on how Congress works. I started with the “formative era,” from the 1780s to the 1820s; this was the period when members of Congress were figuring out how the institution was going to work. They begin setting up basic procedures, processes and norms. Then came what I called the “partisan era” of the 1830s to 1900; during this period, I argued, political parties organized the life of Congress. The political parties at this time different than today, in that there were incredibly strong connections between party leaders and organizations with average Americans. It wasn’t simply that Congress was partisan, but that parties were the organizing institutions of American public life.

“It wasn’t simply that Congress was partisan, but that parties were the organizing institutions of American public life”

The “committee era,” which is from the 1910 to the 1960, saw the rise of committees, often run by southern Democrats in alliance with Republicans, becoming centers of power. Committee Chairs were able to buck in their own party and shape the tenor of the era. Finally, I termed the time from the 1970s to today the “contemporary era,” which has come to be defined by new forms of partisan warfare. A new form of partisanship took hold, shaping legislative behavior, even as the ties between citizens and government weakened.

This periodization isn’t perfect, but it gives a rough sense of the way Congress has evolved and provides some framework to the messy history of this institution.

Let’s begin with America’s Congress: Actions in the Public Sphere, James Madison Through Newt Gingrich.

David Mayhew is one of the great political scientists in America; he teaches at Yale and he’s written a number of very important books on Congress. America’s Congress is always one of my favorites. Mayhew believes that Congress has had a much more active and influential history than is commonly believed. Accessible for lay people and experts alike, the book does a really nice job of creating categories of the different types of “actions” that members of Congress have done since the start of the country.

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He captured some of Congress’s great characters like Robert Wagner, a member of Congress during the 1930s. Mayhew methodically shows that many of the ideas that become the New Deal came from Wagner, rather than from President Roosevelt; he astutely notes that Roosevelt could be seen as the person who signed Senator Wagner’s bills. Most important, he shows that there are very different ways to be a “member” of Congress, and over the course of history, legislators have taken a large variety of approaches to employing congressional power.

Mayhew is often regarded as the dean of congressional political science, as you say. Can you brief us on the other key insights his work has contributed to our understanding the institution?

Congress: The Electoral Connection engrained a fundamental fact about Congress: A lot of what members do is react to what’s going on in their districts to make sure that they’re going to be reelected. It’s a fundamental fact, but one we have to remember as we try to figure out why different members are doing what they do on our big issues. Using rational choice, Mayhew opened up the basic dynamic that guided legislative behavior (though he has greatly broadened his scope over time).

Divided We Govern is also a fantastic book; it went against the conventional wisdom that when you have divided government, when Congress is controlled by one party and the presidency is held by the other party, you get gridlock. Mayhew shows that, historically, that’s not true. It is classic Mayhew: take something we all think to be true and shatter the myth. In periods of divided government, like the early 1970s, for example, a lot of important legislation often comes out of the institution.

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Mayhew also wrote a terrific book on party realignment. Conventional wisdom held that when elections brought to power new coalitions the politics and policies of Congress changed; the classic example cited was the election of 1932. He showed this theory was overblown. In most of his books, he takes on conventional wisdom and undercuts what we thought we knew about Congress. His most basic contribution was to show that while we think of Congress as a dysfunctional, do-nothing institution, it’s actually just the opposite.

On to Eric Schickler, Disjointed Pluralism: Institutional Innovation and the Development of the U.S. Congress.

Schickler is a historical political scientist; he uses archives, just like a historian does. He pioneered a way of writing about congressional history from a political scientist’s point of view. He offers some of the best analytical work that we have on the institution.

He shows that to understand Congress, you can’t just look at political moment. Disjointed Pluralism looks at different periods of congressional reform—such as the early 20th century, and the 1970s—and shows that during periods of reform, we usually don’t get rid of the system that came before. Reforms are layered on top of other reforms. We keep building and bandaging the system.

“Reforms are layered on top of other reforms. We keep building and bandaging the system.”

It’s a great history of congressional reform, and it has this compelling explanation of why we have the system that we built. Whereas many political scientists tried to find single causal arguments to explain what motivates reformers in any given period, Schickler takes on a more historical approach by bringing forward the multiplicity of objectives in any given moment, which explains why different outcomes of reform often have contradictory effects. His is an understanding of the different motivations built into any period of reform, and the essential messiness of what is left behind.

Schickler seems to see Congress as a dynamic rather than static institution. What makes it so?

The way Congress works is not set in stone. The Constitution doesn’t lay out the organization of Congress beyond the basic qualifications for election and the bicameral system of a Senate (with two members per state) and a House (with representation apportioned based on population). Moreover, congressional committees are not in the Constitution, but they are crucial to how Congress does its business. You won’t find the filibuster in the Constitution: it was created as a way of dealing with problems in the Senate while allowing the minority’s voice to be heard.

Because many of the nuts and bolts of congressional procedure are left to the parties and to the institution, Congress changes at different points in time. Can an average member propose amendments to legislation or just party leaders? Answers to questions like that are subject to shifting norms. That is why Schickler is so right: you have to go back decades, if not centuries, to understand the institution. At any given moment, you can see many layers that were put into place in previous eras.

Next, you recommend a new title, Yale Historian Joanne Freeman’s The Field of Blood.

It’s a great, great, great book. It’s one of those single point contributions that is nevertheless really important and really eye-opening. The book’s point is that in the nineteenth century, Congress was an incredibly contentious place.

Today, we think the parties can’t get along, but back in the nineteenth century, tensions were so severe that members were physically fighting on the floor of Congress. They had weapons. American schoolchildren learn the famous story of southerner Preston Brooks caning abolitionist Charles Sumner on the floor of the U.S. Senate over slavery, but we’re taught it was an anomaly. Freeman shows that level of brutality was commonplace in Congress during the time surrounding the Civil War. Tensions over slavery brought Congress to the point of total dysfunction by the middle of the nineteenth century.

The book is well-written, and it brings Congress to life through these stories. She opens up an understanding of the violent nature of life on the floor in these decades that has generally been left out of the history books. Freeman conveys the flavor of the floor in a way very few other people can—that’s why I put the book on the list.

A chicken-or-egg question: Does incivility and Congress reverberate out to American culture, reflect rifts in American culture, or both?

Are tensions in Congress a product of larger problems or the cause of them? You can’t really disentangle the two. That’s something that’s true throughout American history.

When there’s fighting in Congress, whether it’s physical fighting or just partisan fighting, it often reflects tension that exist outside the Capitol. So, it’s important to always put Congress in the context of the moment you’re studying. In the period Freeman writes about in The Field of Blood, the tension on the floor reflects broader sectional tensions that were tearing the union apart.

Robert Caro’s exhaustively detailed, Pulitzer-winning Master of the Senate is next on your list. Why did you choose this one?

I always tell people that this is one of the first books you should read if you’re really interested in congressional history. It’s a wonderful book, the third part of Caro’s multi-volume biography of President Lyndon Johnson that focuses on his time as Senate Majority Leader.

It’s also a splendid history of the Senate itself. He has a section that takes you through the Senate’s organization, showing the power individual Senators always had in that institution, and some of the weaknesses parties had because of its design. He explains all the arcana, such as where the filibuster comes from and why is it so essential to understanding how the upper chamber works.

“Congress is not an institution that naturally lends itself to a crisp narrative”

He lays out that history so the reader can see how Lyndon Johnson reorganizes the Democratic Party to overcome fragmentation. Johnson amassed his own power by starting to bring the Senate under greater control. So, as you read a riveting narrative of the individual you come to understand the Congress.

Caro uses his tools as a journalist and a general nonfiction writer, like Joanne Freeman, to brings the institution alive. It’s not just roll call votes; it’s real people, real conflicts, and real drama. This is incredibly difficult to do. As I said, Congress is not an institution that naturally lends itself to a crisp narrative. This is what makes his achievement so remarkable.

History remembers Johnson as a “Master of the Senate.” How does the current Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, deserve to be remembered? How consequential is he?

You can make an argument that Mitch McConnell is as—if not more—important than President Trump. To borrow Mayhew’s quip about Senator Wagner and FDR, McConnell finally found a president who would send him his judges and tax cut legislation.

“Mitch McConnell is as—if not more—important than President Trump.”

The Republican Party’s protection of President Trump is thanks to McConnell. McConnell has tight control over the Senate. He has run the majority in a very disciplined and very ruthless fashion. He has made sure, up until now at least, that members don’t defect because of any happiness they have with the president. And because of McConnell’s control, we’ve seen consequential changes under his command, most dramatically with the federal courts. So, McConnell is someone we will focus on in congressional history and someone who will be remembered as incredibly consequential.

Ending on a less than optimistic note, you recommend It’s Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism by think tank scholars Norman Ornstein and Thomas E Mann.

Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann are a great team. They’ve been writing and opining about Congress for decades. They’re really easy to listen to and fun to read. They know how to explain what’s going on to a lay audience. Most importantly, they’re always very balanced in their coverage. They give you a long-term perspective on what’s happening. They are very much believers in bipartisanship and good governance.

“Changes in Congress are not, as you often hear on the news, symmetric across party lines. Over the last two decades, the Republican Party has shifted much further to the right than Democrats have shifted to the left”

They wrote this book arguing that not only is Congress pretty broken right now—which is the conventional wisdom—but also that the changes in Congress are not, as you often hear on the news, symmetric across party lines. Over the last two decades, the Republican Party has shifted much further to the right than Democrats have shifted to the left. Looking roll call votes, speeches, history, and interviews, they conclude that extremism is much more pronounced in the Republican Party than is in the Democratic Party. This is what social scientists call asymmetric polarization.

This is an important book whose publication was a notable event. Many journalists portray the problems in Congress as the product of both sides. To have these two prominent, even-handed experts in politics come out and say that extremism is much more pronounced on one side had a big impact, including on how Congress is covered. Since it came out, there has been much more space in the public sphere—though not nearly enough—to point to the ways in which the modern Republican Party drives the current tenor in Washington.

The central thesis seems to be that Republicans, under the leadership of McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan were “more loyal to party than country.” But this thesis seems dated under the leadership of President Donald Trump. Some argue that the leaders of the 115th Congress were loyal to the President at the expense of both the country and the Republican Party. Would you agree that the 115th Congress was uniquely sycophantic?

I don’t think it’s dated. As you said, Mann and Orenstein show the pull of partisanship on how Republicans conduct themselves in Congress grew stronger, starting with Newt Gingrich in the 1980s and through the time of Tea Party.

So, the question is: is their loyalty to President Trump, or is President Trump simply a reflection of where the party is today? I think the real loyalty is to the party, in the end. The modern GOP produced Trump rather than vice versa. They created a massive opening for Trumpian politics. What keeps Republicans in line, is not their love of Trump, but their belief that he benefits the party. The fact that they are often not as far apart as some like to claim is also essential.

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The Republican Party has shifted to the right on many issues. Trump is not an outlier. Although he broke with the GOP on trade, he actually reflects where the party has moved in the last decade on immigration, gun control, climate change and more. The party has become much more extreme. Since Gingrich—who is the subject of my next book—they have also been willing to break basic procedures and norms in pursuit of partisan power. So, their thesis holds up well.

Fault Lines, your most recent book with Kevin Kruse, alerts readers to the fissures undermining American government.

It’s a narrative history of American politics that starts in the 1970s and comes up to today. Kevin Kruse and I focus on four big areas of division. First, partisan division: the movement of the parties away from each other. Second, economic division: the division between the rich and the poor, which became worse during this period. The insecurity of the middle class is part of that story as well.

Third, division over race. The civil rights movement shifts more of its attention starting in the 1970s toward institutional racism, such as how race works in the criminal justice system, which creates a new era of bitter divisions. The return in recent decades of white nationalism in American politics has also brought to the surface open expressions of racism that many citizens had hoped were part of the past.

Finally, the fault lines around gender and sexuality, raised by the conservative movement, the feminist movement and the gay rights movement have become big forces in conflict. Those are the four areas of division we focus on in telling the history of the country, from the time that President Nixon resigned in 1974, right through today.

What will we learn about Congress by reading Fault Lines?

The shifts in the Republican Party are a big part of our story. With regards to the Republicans, we take the insights of Ornstein and Mann and give the full history of how the party moved so far with procedural warfare and policy in Congress. We finished a draft before Trump was the nominee, then added a chapter on his presidency. But we make clear that his success rests on a prior shift in the Republican Party. To understand shifts in the direction of American politics, even more than just the presidency, you have to look at Congress.

Interview by Eve Gerber

March 15, 2019

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Julian E. Zelizer

Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. One of the pioneers in the revival of American political history, he is the author and editor of 19 books on American political history, including Taxing America: Wilbur D. Mills, Congress, and the State, 1945-1975—winner of the Ellis Hawley Prize for Best Book on Political History and the D.B. Prize for Best Book on Congress—On Capitol Hill: The Struggle to Reform Congress and its Consequences, 1948-2000, Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security—From World War II to the War on Terrorism, Jimmy Carter, Conservatives in Power: The Reagan Years, 1981-1989 (co-authored with Meg Jacobs), Governing America: The Revival of Political History and The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society, winner of the D.B. Hardeman Prize for Best Book on Congress. His latest book, co-authored with Kevin Kruse, is entitled Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.