Who Runs Congress?

Who Runs Congress? by Mark J. Green. James M. Fallows, and David R. Zwick for the Nader Congress Project. Bantam Books 296pp. $1.95

WHO RUNS CONGRESS? Any casual observer knows--the committee chairmen, the president and the attentive, affluent corporations. Touted as an "eye-catching and urgent, report," the book was written before the completion of research for Nader's Congress Project to make sure it would appear before the elections. This first publication of the Congress Project is a compendium of stale gossip, common knowledge and worn proposals. Although the premise for the report is that an informed citizenry will act, the glut of information may be an impediment rather than a spur to the reader.

After reading page after page of warmed-over scandal, it's tempting to dismiss the Congress Project report as a bloated Washington gossip column. Opening with a page of come-ons--"READ ALL ABOUT IT! What the 'Games Congressmen Play' are--from 'politics of deference' to congressional love and marriage to the secret hideaway offices of the Capitol rulers"--the report exudes sensationalism. The authors rehash the escapades of John Dowdy. Adam Clayton and that "malign genius" Thomas Dodd: they compare companies sending funds through campaign committees to "crooks lugging baskets of dirty money to be washed through legitimate business." Frequently witty--"The ideal staff must be like the ideal hairpiece; effective but unobtrusive"--and often sarcastic--"Congress has sponsored a building boom inspired by the judgment and tasteful restraint of Albert Speer and Ramses II"--the authors detail such topics as "Who Owns Congress?" and "Lawmakers as Lawbreakers." The titillating anecdotes include not only tales of corporate and union investment in candidates with funds extracted by threats from workers, but also confessions from Senators who scan the gallery for exposed thighs.

Painting Capitol Hill in lurid colors of corruption and incompetence, the authors feel, is the way to show the public how "Congress shackles itself with inadequate political campaign laws, archaic rules, the seniority system, secrecy, understaffing, and grossly deficient ways to obtain crucial information." Most essentially, Who Runs Congress is intended to reveal "a Congress which does not lead, but is led, and which continues to relinquish its constitutional authority and leadership role in government."

In this respect, the work of Nader's Raiders seems trivial. Not only have the authors borrowed heavily from the classical source book on Congress, Charles Clapp's The Congressman, but their purported revelations also reassert the discontinuity betweeb theory and fact of federal government which scholars have long noted and incorporated into their models. For example, many students of Congress accept the attrition Congressional initiative as a by-product of the welfare state. Pressures on the federal government to distribute more benefits and control more operations force, according to this model, the build up of power in the executive branch where information is more readily collected and administration more easily and properly handled.

IN CRITICIZING this part of the Congress Project report for its extravagant redundance, though, it's easy to forget that it isn't addressed to people who are innured to graft and jaded by executive usurpation. The data and conclusions of the report are not intended to contribute to the disinterested study of Congress. Nader is writing for action. Suggesting that lack of citizen vigilance has allowed Congress to "surrender its enormous authority and resources to special interest groups, waste, insensitivity, ignorance and bureaucracy," Nader wants to alert the citizens to their own interest in "what these 535 legislators do and do not not do every day." "Turning Congress around for the people" is Nader asserts, both an obligation of citizenship and a necessity for the remedy of national problems. Under this banner, the surplus of examples of corrupt politics and incompetent politicians serves as incitement for the citizen army.


But even from the perspective of the disgruntled citizen, the value of Who Runs Congress is questionable. The suggestions which emerge from the morass of data are scarcely novel; many are either unworkable or inefficient. To combat "organized special interests," the authors recommend tighter lobby disclosure laws as well as more ad hoc coverage, such as television documentaries, press coverage and citizen investigations. While informative, these methods of surveillance won't prevent influence-peddling either through front doors or under restaurant tables. For breaking the executive monopoly on information, a problem reiterated throughout the report, Green, Fallows and Zwick offer no advice at all.

Just as uninspiring as the Study Group suggestions for reform is the last chapter--a "Primer for Citizen Action." Provided to instruct citizens on how to obtain both institutional changes and policy improvement, the primer stresses that "Congress has been moved by men and women with no special wealth or influence, little or no political experience, and no uncommon genius, but with the modest combination of commitment to a cause and the facts to make a case." Like the Wizard of Oz telling the lion that he needed only a medal, Douglass W. Cassel, the author of this section, counsels citizens to write letters to their Congressmen, research issues and Congressmen's records in government publications, and organize to lobby. All of these approaches have been long used; the activists will succeed or fail according to a variety of circumstances independent of their dedication and effort.

ULTIMATELY, neither excessive sensationalism nor pedantry, nor even the authors habit of strewing the report with collegiate student bored by the paralysis of Congress or a mother who must pay a higher price for milk because of the dairy industry's generosity to Nixon, information isn't necessarily the prelude to action. Nader may be an educator, but he is not an organizes action, as he himself declares, is up to the citizen, and you may well "lose everything on your agenda." Despite the Congress Project's assurances, it's likely that the reader of Who Rules Congress will be overcome by a sense of powerlessness.