Congress from the Inside: Observations from the Majority and the Minority

Four decades of Democratic control of Congress abruptly came to an end with the 1994 elections, which propelled the Republican party to an unfamiliar role as the majority party in both houses of Congress. Second-term congressman from Ohio Sherrod Brown was thrust into this frenetic first 100 days which were very partisan and often very nasty. Congress from the Inside takes freshman Congressman Brown through the halls of the Capitol as he learns his job; depicts the inner-working and deal-making of Congress; shows how legislation is crafted; and visits the offices of other members and small meetings where much of the work of Congress is done. Brown’s third term, still as a member of the minority party, exposes the strengths and weaknesses of Congress as an institution, its successes and failures, its diversity and its elitism. This account of the transition from a political majority status to minority status discloses the trauma felt by one party and the exhilaration experienced by the other as one era ended and a new one began.

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Reviews

Congress From the Inside is just what the name suggests: a member’s-eye view of Congress by Sherrod Brown, a fourth-term, liberal Democratic member of the House of Representatives from Ohio. Brown writes about campaigning in his home district, serving on committees, voting on the floor, and answering constituent mail, as well as presenting his perspective on NAFTA, Bill Clinton’s first budget and tax increase, and the effects of the “Republican Revolution” of the 1994 congressional elections. Brown’s inside description of the Democratic Party’s struggle to deal with their loss of a congressional majority is one of the most vivid and candid sections in the book. Also of note is his reaction to President Bill Clinton’s subsequent “snuggling up to (then-Speaker of the House Newt) Gingrich,” as the “triangulation” theory espoused by controversial presidential advisor Dick Morris moved Clinton further to the right, creating a rift between the president and congressional Democrats. (It was Brown who quipped at the time, in a remark made in a closed Democratic meeting but reported nationally, that maybe the street in front of the White House, which had been closed to traffic for security purposes, should be reopened.)While there are no bombshells in Congress from the Inside, Brown’s book is reasonably candid for a sitting member of Congress, and he wisely resists the temptation to puff himself up too heavily. But it is a strongly partisan story told from a liberal’s perspective, in which the Democrats are always right on the issues. The only time Republicans are right, according to Brown, is when they act like Democrats (as in passing a minimum wage increase or enacting health insurance reform in 1996). Democratic readers will appreciate this book, along with the tantalizing possibility on which it closes–that the congressional elections in 2000 will see the Democrats take back the House, making Brown an influential subcommittee chairman. (amazon.com)

Congressman Brown (D-Ohio) offers an informative and well written account of how the House of Representatives works, as well as an insider’s view of the rise, fall, and resurrection of the Democratic party during the years 1992 to 1996. Too many books by politicians are self-advertisements filled with vague policy proposals and inoffensive political philosophy. There is little of either here, as Brown wisely focuses for the most part on what congressional representatives do and how they do it. One of 110 new members elected in 1992, Brown takes us through the minutiae that make up a new representatives’s early weeks. Each new member is given a handbook on how to behave in the House. Specific rules govern how large a staff a new member may have (one for every 35,000 people in his or her district, up to a staff of 18). Brown describes in detailand makes interestingthe utterly confusing process through which new members get assigned to committees and subcommittees; he shows how things get done, or don’t get done, in these committees. He highlights the necessity of regularly visiting ones district. On one Saturday, he goes from an Eagle Scout presentation to a spaghetti dinner at a local high school. Such detail is set against the larger story of the conservative Republican triumph in Congress in 1994, led by Newt Gingrich, and the sudden loss of power by the Democrats. He traces the subsequent self-destruction of Gingrich and his followers as they try to push the country too far too fast to the right, and Clinton is easily reelected. Brown finds that Gingrich’s legacy is wide public distrust of Congress. Having demonized Congress for years, both Democrats and Republicans now must repair the damage that, in Brown’s view, Gingrich has done. While the larger story is well handled, its the details that make this so readable. Not for political junkies alone, but for anyone who enjoys good writing and a good story. (kirkusreviews.com)

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