Recommended Reading List
Roger Davidson, Walter J. Oleszek, and Frances E. Lee, Congress and Its Members, 13th ed. (Washington, D.C., CQ Press, July 2017), paperback, 632pp.
This is the best basic text on Congress in print, thoroughly up-to-date and readable; with all the salient points covered. In addition to featuring examples and cases drawn from recent congressional politics—including the battles over health care reform, financial regulations, economic stimulus, fiscal management, and tax policy—the authors also integrate new scholarship on representation, congressional elections, lobbying influence, and the relationship between Congress and the Court.
Lawrence Dodd and Bruce Oppenheimer, eds., Congress Reconsidered 11th ed., (Washington, D.C., CQ Press, December 2017), paperback, 536pp.
Original essays by leading scholars examining aspects of the modern Congress from elections and party politics to congressional policy making.
David R. Mayhew, The Imprint of Congress. (Yale University Press, 2017), paperback, 176pp.
What kind of job has America’s routinely disparaged legislative body actually done? In The Imprint of Congress, the distinguished congressional scholar David R. Mayhew gives us an insightful historical analysis of the U.S. Congress’s performance from the late eighteenth century to today, exploring what its lasting imprint has been on American politics and society. Mayhew suggests that Congress has balanced the presidency in a surprising variety of ways, and in doing so, it has contributed to the legitimacy of a governing system faced by an often fractious public.
Frances Lee and Nolan McCarty, eds, Can America Govern Itself? (Cambridge University Press, 2019), paperback, 370pp.
Can America Govern Itself? brings together a diverse group of distinguished scholars to analyze how rising party polarization and economic inequality have affected the performance of American governing institutions. It is organized around two themes: the changing nature of representation in the United States; and how changes in the political environment have affected the internal processes of institutions, overall government performance, and policy outcomes. The chapters in this volume analyze concerns about power, influence and representation in American politics, the quality of deliberation and political communications, the management and implementation of public policy, and the performance of an eighteenth century constitution in today’s polarized political environment. These renowned scholars provide a deeper and more systematic grasp of what is new, and what is perennial in challenges to democracy at a fraught moment.
Walter J. Oleszek, Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process, 9th ed., (CQ Press, March 2013), 484pp.
Oleszek examines the use of innovative procedural devices by both the majority and minority parties to achieve their political goals and offers a reassessment of the role of conference committees in reconciling bicameral differences. The book includes examinations of: new congressional earmark reforms; the disappearance of “open rules” in the House; the surge in use of suspension of the rules in the House; the 60-vote threshold for enactment of amendments and bills in the Senate; the increase in “filling the amendment tree” in the Senate; and the heightened use of old and new oversight mechanisms to “check and balance” executive actions and activities.
Barbara Sinclair, Unorthodox Lawmaking: New Legislative Processes in the U.S. Congress, 4th ed. (Washington, D.C., Congressional Quarterly Press, 2012), paperback.
Written with the non-specialist in mind, this book takes a detailed look at the legislative process as it is today, including the various detours or shortcuts a major bill is likely to encounter. To illustrate the contemporary legislative process, the author uses several case studies including the economic stimulus bill of 2008, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and, of course, the health care reform legislation of 2009–2010. The author includes recent developments in the Senate (for example, filling the amendment tree); major changes in how the House and Senate resolve their differences (fewer conferences and more informal bargaining and amendments); and earmarks and changes in the appropriations process.
Burdett A. Loomis, ed., The U.S. Senate: From Deliberation to Dysfunction (Washington, D.C., CQ Press, July 2011), paperback 257pp.
Offering top-notch research geared to an undergraduate audience, Loomis’ new edited volume represents a broad picture of the contemporary Senate and how it came to be. While addressing issues of delay, obstruction, and polarization in a variety of ways, the scholars in this collection are not proposing a reform agenda, but instead, explore the historical and political contexts for how difficult it can be to change a non-majoritarian, highly individualistic institution. Students will come away from these chapters with a much greater appreciation of the Senate’s unique combination of tradition, precedent, and constitutional mandate.
Gary C. Jacobson, The Politics of Congressional Elections, 8th ed., (Pearson, 2012), paperback, 308 pp.
From candidate recruitment to reelection strategies, this is a comprehensive look at the electoral dimension of Congress written by a first-rate political scientist.
Nolan McCarty, Polarization: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2019), paperback, 280 pp.
The 2016 election of Donald J. Trump invoked a time for reflection about the state of American politics and its deep ideological, cultural, racial, regional, and economic divisions. But one aspect that the contemporary discussions often miss is that these fissures have been opening over several decades and are deeply rooted in the structure of American politics and society.
In Polarization: What Everyone Needs to Know® Nolan McCarty takes readers through what scholars know and don’t know about the origins, development, and implications of our rising political conflicts, delving into social, economic, and geographic determinants of polarization in the United States. While the current political climate seems to suggest that extreme views are becoming more popular, McCarty also argues that, contrary to popular belief, the 2016 election was a natural outgrowth of 40 years of polarized politics, rather than a significant break with the past. He evaluates arguments over which factors that have created this state of affairs, including gerrymandered legislative districts, partisan primary nomination systems, and our private campaign finance system. He also considers the potential of major reforms such as instating proportional representation or ranked choice voting to remedy extreme polarization. A concise overview of a complex and crucial topic in US politics, this book is for anyone wanting to understand how to repair the cracks in our system.
Frances Lee, Insecure Majorities: Congress and the Perpetual Campaign (University of Chicago Press, 2017), paperback, 248 pp.
As Democrats and Republicans continue to vie for political advantage, Congress remains paralyzed by partisan conflict. That the last two decades have seen some of the least productive Congresses in recent history is usually explained by the growing ideological gulf between the parties, but this explanation misses another fundamental factor influencing the dynamic. In contrast to politics through most of the twentieth century, the contemporary Democratic and Republican parties compete for control of Congress at relative parity, and this has dramatically changed the parties’ incentives and strategies in ways that have driven the contentious partisanship characteristic of contemporary American politics.
With Insecure Majorities, Frances E. Lee offers a controversial new perspective on the rise of congressional party conflict, showing how the shift in competitive circumstances has had a profound impact on how Democrats and Republicans interact. For nearly half a century, Democrats were the majority party, usually maintaining control of the presidency, the House, and the Senate. Republicans did not stand much chance of winning majority status, and Democrats could not conceive of losing it. Under such uncompetitive conditions, scant collective action was exerted by either party toward building or preserving a majority. Beginning in the 1980s, that changed, and most elections since have offered the prospect of a change of party control. Lee shows, through an impressive range of interviews and analysis, how competition for control of the government drives members of both parties to participate in actions that promote their own party’s image and undercut that of the opposition, including the perpetual hunt for issues that can score political points by putting the opposing party on the wrong side of public opinion. More often than not, this strategy stands in the way of productive bipartisan cooperation—and it is also unlikely to change as long as control of the government remains within reach for both parties.
Marian Currinder, Money in the House, (Westview Press, 2009), paperback, 230pp.
Money in the House provides a compelling look at how the drive to raise campaign money has come to dominate congressional party politics. Author Marian Currinder examines the rise of member to member and member to party giving as part of a broader process that encourages ambitious House members to compete for power by raising money for the party and its candidates. As the margin between parties in the House has narrowed, the political environment has become fiercely competitive. Because electoral success is largely equated with fundraising success, the party that raises the most money is at a distinct advantage. In addition to relying on outside interests and individuals for campaign contributions, the congressional parties increasingly call on their own members to give for the good of the whole. As a result, lawmakers must devote ever increasing amounts of time to fundraising. The fundraising expectations for members who wish to advance in the chamber are even higher. By requiring their members to raise and redistribute tremendous amounts of money in order to gain power in the chamber, the parties benefit from their members ambitious pursuits. Currinder argues that the new ”rule of money is fundamentally altering the way House members pursue power and the way congressional parties define and reward loyalty.
Allen Schick, The Federal Budget: Politics, Policy, Process, 3rd ed., (The Brookings Institution, September 2007), 320 pp.
The federal budget impacts American policies both at home and abroad, and recent concern over the exploding budgetary deficit has experts calling our nation’s policies “unsustainable” and “system-dooming.” As the deficit continues to grow, will America be fully able to fund its priorities, such as an effective military and looking after its aging population?
In this third edition of his classic book The Federal Budget, Allen Schick examines how surpluses projected during the final years of the Clinton presidency turned into oversized deficits under George W. Bush. In his detailed analysis of the politics and practices surrounding the federal budget, Schick addresses issues such as the collapse of the congressional budgetary process and the threat posed by the termination of discretionary spending caps. This edition updates and expands his assessment of the long-term budgetary outlook, and it concludes with a look at how the nation’s deficit will affect America now and in the future.
Louis Fisher, Presidential War Power, 3rd ed (University of Kansas Press, 2013), paperback, 400 pp.
A classic and bestselling work by one of Americas top Constitutional scholars, Presidential War Power garnered the lead review in the New York Times Book Review and raised essential issues that have only become more timely, relevant, and controversial in our post-9/11 era.
In this third edition, Louis Fisher updates his arguments throughout, critiques the presidential actions of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and challenges what he views as their dangerous expansion of executive power. Spanning the life of the Republic from the Revolutionary Era to the War on Terror, the new edition covers for the first time: Indefinite detention of civilians and non-civilians without trial; President Obamas failed effort to close Guantánamo; NSA wiretapping and Fourth Amendment violations; presidential decision-making relating to the wind-down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; U.S. military operations against Libya in 2011; continued abuse of the state secrets privilege in national security court cases; secret legal memos justifying the use of UAVs or drones for targeted killings overseas; extended comparison of the expansion of executive power under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Lewis Gould, The Most Exclusive Club: A History of the Modern United States Senate (Basic Books, 2006), 416 pp.
In this sweeping narrative, acclaimed political historian Lewis L. Gould chronicles over one hundred years of Senate history, from the Progressive Era to the war in Iraq. Over the course of the twentieth century, the most powerful legislative body in the world grappled with great questions of empire and democracy, war and peace, capital and labor, fascism and communism, race relations, women’s rights, and terrorism. In addition to towering figures such as Henry Cabot Lodge, Sr., William E. Borah, and Lyndon Johnson, Gould also highlights the stories of lesser-known Senate leaders who have played vital roles in America’s upper house. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, controversy surrounding the Senate is intensifying-as is its political power. Lewis L. Gould’s masterful history is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the past, present, and future of American politics.
It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism
Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism (Basic Books, May 2012), 240 pp.
In It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein identify two overriding problems that have led Congress—and the United States—to the brink of institutional collapse. The first is the serious mismatch between our political parties, which have become as vehemently adversarial as parliamentary parties, and a governing system that, unlike a parliamentary democracy, makes it extremely difficult for majorities to act. Second, while both parties participate in tribal warfare, both sides are not equally culpable. The political system faces what the authors call “asymmetric polarization,” with the Republican Party implacably refusing to allow anything that might help the Democrats politically, no matter the cost.
Robert Draper, Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives (Free Press, April 2012) 352pp.
The U.S. House of Representatives—a large, often unruly body of men and women elected every other year from 435 distinct microcosms of America—has achieved renown as “the people’s House,” the world’s most democratic institution, and an acute Rorschach of biennial public passions. In the midterm election year 2010, recession-battered Americans expressed their discontent with a simultaneously overreaching and underperforming government by turning the formerly Democratically controlled House over to the Republicans. Among the new GOP majority were eighty-seven freshmen, many of them political novices with Tea Party backing who pledged a more open, responsive, and fiscally thrifty House. What the 112th Congress instead achieved was a public standing so low—a ghastly 9 percent approval rating— that, as its longest-serving member, John Dingell, would dryly remark, “I think pedophiles would do better.” What happened?
Robert Draper explores this question just as he examined the Bush White House in his 2007 New York Times bestselling book Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush—by burrowing deeply inside the subject, gaining cooperation of the major players, and producing a colorful, unsparingly detailed, but evenhanded narrative of how the House of Representatives became a house of ill repute. Draper’s cast of characters spans the full spectrum of political experience and ideologies—from the Democrat Dingell, a congressman since 1955 (though elbowed out of power by the party’s House leader, Nancy Pelosi), to Allen West, a black Republican Tea Party sensation, former Army lieutenant colonel, and political neophyte with a talent for equal opportunity offending. While unspooling the boisterous, at times tragic, and ultimately infuriating story of the 112th Congress, Draper provides unforgettable portraits of Gabrielle Giffords, the earnest young Arizona congresswoman who was gunned down by a madman at the beginning of the legislative session; Anthony Weiner, the Democrats’ clown prince and self-made media star until the New Yorker self-immolated in a sex scandal; the strong-willed Pelosi and her beleaguered if phlegmatic Republican counterpart, House Speaker John Boehner; the affable majority whip, Kevin McCarthy, tasked with instilling team spirit in the iconoclastic freshmen; and most of all, the previously unknown new members who succeeded in shoving Boehner’s Republican Conference to the far right and thereby bringing the nation, more than once, to the brink of governmental shutdown or economic default.
In this lively work of political narrative, Draper synthesizes some of the most talked-about breaking news of the day with the real story of what happened behind the scenes. This book is a timely and masterfully told parable of dysfunction that may well serve as Exhibit A of how Americans lost faith in their democratic institutions.
Tim Alberta, American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump (Harper, 2019), 688 pp.
Politico Magazine’s chief political correspondent provides a rollicking insider’s look at the making of the modern Republican Party—how a decade of cultural upheaval, populist outrage, and ideological warfare made the GOP vulnerable to a hostile takeover from the unlikeliest of insurgents: Donald J. Trump.
American Carnage is the story of a president’s rise based on a country’s evolution and a party’s collapse. As George W. Bush left office with record-low approval ratings and Barack Obama led a Democratic takeover of Washington, Republicans faced a moment of reckoning: They had no vision, no generation of new leaders, and no energy in the party’s base. Yet Obama’s forceful pursuit of his progressive agenda, coupled with the nation’s rapidly changing societal and demographic identity, lit a fire under the right, returning Republicans to power and inviting a bloody struggle for the party’s identity in the post-Bush era. The factions that emerged—one led by absolutists like Jim Jordan and Ted Cruz, the other led by pragmatists like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell—engaged in a series of devastating internecine clashes and attempted coups for control. With the GOP’s internal fissures rendering it legislatively impotent, and that impotence fueling a growing resentment toward the political class and its institutions, the stage was set for an outsider to crash the party. When Trump descended a gilded escalator to announce his run in the summer of 2015, the candidate had met the moment.
Only by viewing Trump as the culmination of a decade-long civil war inside the GOP—and of the parallel sense of cultural, socioeconomic, and technological disruption during that period—can we appreciate how he won the White House and consider the fundamental questions at the center of America’s current turmoil. How did a party once obsessed with national insolvency come to champion trillion-dollar deficits? How did the party of compassionate conservatism become the party of Muslim bans and family separation? How did the party of family values elect a thrice-married philanderer? And, most important, how long can such a party survive?
Loaded with explosive original reporting and based off hundreds of exclusive interviews—including with key players such as President Trump, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Jim DeMint, and Reince Priebus, among many others—American Carnage takes us behind the scenes of this tumultuous period as we’ve never seen it before and establishes Tim Alberta as the premier chronicler of this political era.
Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Governement. (Princeton University Press, 2017), paperback,
Democracy for Realists assails the romantic folk-theory at the heart of contemporary thinking about democratic politics and government, and offers a provocative alternative view grounded in the actual human nature of democratic citizens.
Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels deploy a wealth of social-scientific evidence, including ingenious original analyses of topics ranging from abortion politics and budget deficits to the Great Depression and shark attacks, to show that the familiar ideal of thoughtful citizens steering the ship of state from the voting booth is fundamentally misguided. They demonstrate that voters―even those who are well informed and politically engaged―mostly choose parties and candidates on the basis of social identities and partisan loyalties, not political issues. They also show that voters adjust their policy views and even their perceptions of basic matters of fact to match those loyalties. When parties are roughly evenly matched, elections often turn on irrelevant or misleading considerations such as economic spurts or downturns beyond the incumbents’ control; the outcomes are essentially random. Thus, voters do not control the course of public policy, even indirectly.
Achen and Bartels argue that democratic theory needs to be founded on identity groups and political parties, not on the preferences of individual voters. Now with new analysis of the 2016 elections, Democracy for Realists provides a powerful challenge to conventional thinking, pointing the way toward a fundamentally different understanding of the realities and potential of democratic government.