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A House Divide

New York publishing houses have recently issued two books that focus on how the House has performed since the Republicans’ dramatic 63-seat takeover in November 2010. Each is a thin volume that focuses on the first several months of last year, with less-than-glowing assessments. 

The contrasting approaches of a veteran magazine writer with less experience on Capitol Hill and two longtime Washington-based political scientists who are well-known for their punditry offer separate perspectives. But the limited time frame of each book — and the incomplete legislative and political outcomes of the “tea party House” — leave the reader to fill in the details.

In “Do Not Ask What Good We Do,” Robert Draper describes how he told his agent and publisher on the day after the 2010 elections that he was putting aside another book project to “produce a narrative of the 112th Congress.” Draper — whose previous works include “Dead Certain,” which explores the presidency of George W. Bush — focuses chiefly on profiles of a handful of House Members, especially GOP freshmen, to tell his story.

Rep. Allen West is “the most famous freshman,” Draper writes, because of his eagerness to speak his mind to almost everyone and to challenge how Congress does its business. Draper describes how even before the Florida Republican took office, his actions stirred private rebukes — which West largely ignored — from Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), on whose panel West now serves.

Based on numerous interviews, Draper depicts Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) as the low-profile everyman of the freshman class, who chafes over the tedious operations and limited output on Capitol Hill. 

“It was frustrating enough that, even leaving aside the maddening intransigence of the Senate, the lower body was failing to address the key issues of the day,” Draper writes. “But the more vexing revelation to [Duncan’s] first hundred days was his inability to be heard within the body. … Sitting on three committees, he strove to find a moment, any moment, in which he could distinguish himself.” Duncan decided to take it as a compliment when Boehner called him a “hard head.”

With somewhat less attention, Draper contrasts two political newcomers who were among the least likely freshmen; both survived lengthy recounts before winning their seats. 

After being largely ignored by GOP leaders during the campaign season, Rep. Renee Ellmers (N.C.) “skillfully climbed her way up from the bottom rung” and became a loyal and favorite ally of party leaders. She did her homework and embraced the leaders’ message. Ellmers “just loved” how two more senior female Members from North Carolina — Virginia Foxx and Sue Myrick — “shut up those loudmouths” in the Republican Conference.

Draper describes Rep. Blake Farenthold (Texas) as far more cautious, constantly worrying that the Republican-controlled House was failing to connect to his Democratic-leaning district — prior to his getting much more favorable territory from redistricting. “The government was built on compromising. And it’s frustrating as hell,” he told some constituents.

Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) gets extensive — and mostly positive — ink from Draper. “The freshmen found it easy to connect with McCarthy,” the author writes. The Majority Whip was “almost absurdly sunny, and far more proactively attentive than the ever-calculating Cantor or the amiable but oft-sequestered Boehner.”

Draper also profiles some Democrats, although their connection to his broader story often seems tenuous. He shows the steady work habits of  Rep. John Dingell, dean of the House, on behalf of his Detroit-area district, as well as the lawmaker’s disdain for many of the young GOP revolutionaries. Even with his “not-undeserved reputation for being cantankerous, he got along with almost everybody.”

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) receives less flattering attention for her obsession with intervening in virtually every debate, with an “imperious style [that] tended to grate on others.” 

And Draper focuses on the media obsession of Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) prior to his June 2011 resignation after he posted compromising photos of himself on Twitter. “He stuck out in the House chamber like an extended middle finger,” the author writes.

Dearth of Even-Handedness

Draper’s colorful profiles make for an easy read. But even with his claim of more than 300 interviews, he barely skims the surface of how the House does its business. Thomas Mann and Roll Call contributing writer Norman Ornstein, by contrast, do not appear to have spoken with any of the 87 GOP freshmen for their book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.”

Relying instead on news clips, earlier political science writing and their own views and activities as Washington insiders, they describe the threats posed to the nation by “the new politics of extremism.”

Despite their book’s title and promotion, which suggest a “pox on both houses” approach, the longtime collaborators pointedly describe House Republicans as chiefly responsible for what they consider to be a sorry state of affairs. 

The authors characterize House Republicans as engaging in “an appalling spectacle of hostage taking,” especially during the lengthy debate last summer on the debt-ceiling increase. In their introduction, they write that the new majority is “ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” And the narrative goes downhill from there.

Mann and Ornstein offer cursory criticism of Democrats for their contribution to the political mess — chiefly, the strident attacks on Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1987. But they contend, unconvincingly, that there is no comparison in the culpability. “Democrats in Congress became more homogeneous and drifted left,” they write, while “Republicans became more homogenous and veered sharply right,” a dubious (at best) assertion.

The political scientists offer various villains — none of them Congressional Democrats — for what they term the “seeds of dysfunction.” They start with former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who left Capitol Hill more than 13 years ago, and proceed to other oft-discussed ailments such as partisan polarization, fractious and fragmented news media, the Supreme Court and the undue influence of money in politics. 

The mainstream media receive harsh criticism for joining what Mann and Ornstein define as “asymmetric partisan polarization” in describing the two parties. Rather than take the conventional course of “giving equal time to opposing groups and arguments,” they contend, reporters and editors should show how Republicans “have driven both the widening of the ideological gap between the parties and the strategic hyper-partisanship” on many issues. 

They call the GOP an “insurgent outlier.” As Ornstein’s American Enterprise Institute colleague Peter Wallison has noted, “by the lights of Ornstein and Mann, a political party that is ‘far from the American mainstream’ could be put fully in control of the U.S. government” come November. Isn’t that what “mainstream” means?

The book largely ignores the reasons behind the Democrats’ historic setback in the 2010 elections. And it utterly fails to consider that the new crop of Republicans who won office that year might have a point about the dysfunction of Congress before they arrived.

Each book has a lengthy chapter on last summer’s debt-ceiling negotiations. Mann and Ornstein paint GOP leaders as the villains in their negotiations with President Barack Obama. “Cantor criticized and undercut negotiations,” they write. “Boehner was sandbagged.” 

Draper, for his part, largely ignores the White House talks and focuses on the debt-ceiling dynamics among House Republicans. He relates a tale in which four Boehner allies cautioned him that Cantor was encouraging a tea party “brush fire” against Boehner’s deal-making. He does not offer a response from the top two leaders. More recent journalistic examinations of the controversy have placed greater responsibility on Obama for last summer’s debacle. 

As these two books demonstrate, the “first rough draft” of history has its limitations. And expert even-handedness is in increasingly short supply.

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