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Amy E. Black

Statesmanship or Gamesmanship?

How the U.S. Congress works—and how it doesn't.

Each year, the Gallup organization asks Americans to "rank the honesty and ethical standards of people in different fields." Members of Congress and car salesmen almost always rank worst. In other national polls, Congressional approval ratings and trust in government are reaching near-record lows. Legislators are not a popular or well-respected bunch.

Little wonder. Political antics like the partial shutdown of the federal government in October 2013 demonstrate how gamesmanship, inflexibility, and desire for the spotlight too often trump concerns for the public good.

But the shows designed for the cameras bear little resemblance to the hard work happening behind the scenes. A loud and brassy few capture most of the media attention and try to hold Congress captive with their antics, but hundreds of others (with an essential supporting cast of thousands) devote tremendously long hours to policy-related work and meeting constituents' needs.

Journalists rarely recount the tales of the mundane yet important work of members of Congress and their staff. Conflict, political theater, and zippy one-liners make headlines and skew the average voter's perceptions of what happens on Capitol Hill. The real work of Congress is slow and methodical; it cannot easily be captured in a sound bite or short news story. Of course some members of Congress give far too little time or energy to their work, but, as a group, federal legislators are dedicated public servants who deserve far more respect than scorn.

About once a decade, a book appears that offers a detailed, behind-the-scenes look at Congress. In the 1970s, former Senate staffer Eric Redman introduced a generation of college students to the legislative process in Dance of Legislation. Journalists Jeffrey Birnbaum and Alan Murray highlighted lobbying excesses in the 1980s in Showdown at Gucci Gulch, and Newsweek's Stephen Waldman chronicled the passage of Bill Clinton's signature National Service Act in The Bill. Robert Kaiser's latest ...

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