From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com
Citizens baffled by the House of Representatives' allocation of
its time in July -- spent mostly on flag burning, stem-cell
research, gay marriage, the Pledge of Allegiance, religion and
gun control -- can find cogent explanations for its political
priorities in this slim, forceful volume. Not that the subjects
that ate up the House calendar last month are addressed here;
they are not. It is the institution of Congress that Thomas E.
Mann and Norman J. Ornstein dissect, and they find it in
The authors are members of what, sadly, may be a disappearing
breed in Washington: independent-minded, knowledgeable experts
whose concern for process is stronger than their desires for
particular outcomes. They are means guys in an age dominated by
ends. And they most emphatically do not believe that any
particular end justifies craven or extra-legal means.
Mann and Ornstein are Washington fixtures, Mann at the Brookings
Institution and Ornstein at the American Enterprise Institute.
You've seen them both on television and quoted countless times;
they are the sort of pundits that reporters rely on. They have
been friends, sometimes rivalrous ones, since graduate school;
they studied together at the University of Michigan and were
congressional fellows together in 1969. Their personal politics
are left-of-center, but, as they declare at the beginning of the
book, their strongest partisanship is institutional. "For us,"
they write, "Congress has always been the first branch." Their
devotion to Congress has won them admirers from all points on
the political spectrum. A blurb from former Republican speaker
of the House Newt Gingrich makes the point: "Mann and Ornstein
understand well the glaring gap between the framers' design and
The Founding Fathers quite deliberately described Congress in
the first article of the Constitution, the presidency in the
second. The authors of a revolution designed to overthrow a
monarch did not want to put a comparably powerful chief
executive officer in the king's place. Congress, explicitly
granted the power to raise and spend money, was to have the
Over more than two centuries of American history, the founders'
intention to create a strong legislature has repeatedly been
tested -- and sometimes evaded, as in recent years. Until now,
the pendulum has always swung back toward the Capitol after
periods of unusually strong White House influence. Mann and
Ornstein fervently want this to happen again; their book
explains why they consider this so important and provides some
ideas for how it might happen. But fundamental change will not
come from tinkering reforms, they argue; only angry voters can
force the House and Senate to correct themselves.
Their account of the recent decline of Congress, and
particularly the House, is scathing but difficult to dispute.
They blame a poisonously partisan division in both houses and in
the country for much of today's congressional bickering and
irrelevance. Partisan warfare led Republicans to cater to "the
base," the country's most conservative Republicans, which
explains the House's bizarre agenda in July. Mann and Ornstein
trace the origins of partisan warfare back to the 1980s, when a
contemptuous Democratic majority dominated the House without any
fear or expectation that the Republicans would ever regain
control. But Gingrich's forces did, of course, leading first to
the spectacle of a wholly partisan impeachment of a sitting
president and then to the first period of extended GOP control
of both Congress and the White House since the 1920s.
"The arrival of unified Republican government in 2001
transformed the aggressive and active GOP-led Congress of the
Clinton years into a deferential and supine body, one extremely
reluctant to demand information, scrub presidential proposals,
or oversee the executive," Mann and Ornstein write. "The
uncompromising assertion of executive authority by President
Bush and Vice President Cheney was met with a whimper, not a
principled fight, by the Republican Congress." The authors write
contemptuously of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and
his willingness to ignore House rules and traditions to ram
through legislation to please the White House.
History is often ignored or forgotten in contemporary America,
but not by Mann and Ornstein. Their argument is strengthened by
their ability to put it in historical context, to demonstrate
how far the current Congress has wandered from the legislature's
traditional and constitutional role. Unfortunately, Mann and
Ornstein let their own history complicate their narrative by
repeatedly quoting their earlier writings. Their editor did them
no favor by permitting these self-citations, which create a "We
told you so" tone not conducive to making, or winning, an
Even so, it is easy to recommend this book to anyone who is
interested in Congress, how it works and how it should work.
Hastert would be particularly well-served by spending a few
hours with The Broken Branch. And if, as Mann recently predicted
in The Post's Outlook section, Democrats win control of the
House in November, this book will suddenly be useful to both
parties: to the Democrats as a cautionary tale and a useful
blueprint, to the Republicans as an insight into where they went
Reviewed by Robert G. Kaiser
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
CONGRESS THE FIRST BRNACH OF GOVERNMENT.....HUH!!!