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If a legislature is set down in a constitutional environment, what sorts of actions will its members engage in that win public notice? For reasons elaborated below, I believe this is a useful question to ask, and I rely on it as an underpinning for this book about the U.S. Congress. By "public notice," I mean notice by at least a politically aware stratum of the population. For a sense of what I mean by "sorts of actions," consider the following account of congressional politics during Clinton's first two controversy-laden years in 1993-94. I wrote this stylized sketch for the occasion of this book, but probably any of several million witnesses of U.S. politics during those years composing a brief narrative of widely noticed events involving Congress or its members would have written something like it.
Exhilarated by their party's 1992 election victory, President Clinton and Democratic House and Senate leaders Tom Foley (D-Wash.) and George Mitchell (D Maine) set out to build Capitol Hill coalitions "from the left in"-that is, the Republican minority party would be largely ignored.Joining the new cabinet were veteran legislators Les Aspin (D-Wis.) at Defense, Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) at Treasury, Mike Espy (D-Miss.) at Agriculture, and Leon Panetta (D-Calif.) at the Office of Management and Budget. African-Americans rose to new prominence on the Hill as Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) invigorated the Congressional Black Caucus and Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.) spoke out as the first black woman senator. Clinton's February 1993 budget plan, unveiled to considerable public and Capitol Hill acclaim, headed to Congressman Dan Rostenkowski's (D-Ill.) Ways and Means Committee for expeditious treatment.
But troubles loomed. Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) derailed Clinton's so-called gays-in-the-military initiative. Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.) presided over the demise of key White House appointments. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, began grousing publicly about Administration stances. Senators David Boren (D-Okla.) and John Breaux (D-La.), both thought to be needed for a Senate victory on the budget, took advantage of their marginal coalitional position to kill the White House's proposed BTU tax. The Republicans came alive again in April 1993 as Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kans.) staged a successful filibuster against Clinton's economic stimulus bill. House backbenchers Tim Penny (D-Minn.) and John Kasich (R-Ohio) hatched their own competing plan to reduce the deficit. Eventually, in August 1993, the White House budget plan won narrow victories in both houses, albeit only after much of its content had been diluted or dropped. Bob Kerrey (D-Nebr.) drove a bargain as the key marginal voter in the Senate; first-termer Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky (D-Pa.) was put on the spot in that role in the House.
In a landmark policy move in November 1993, Congress approved NAFTA-the North American Free Trade Agreement-through an odd coalition that saw House Republican Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) assisting the White House and House Democratic leaders Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) and David Bonior (D-Mich.) leading the opposition. But after that it was all downhill for the White House through 1994 as, most important, the Clintons' ambitious health-care plan foundered and died. John Dingell (D-Mich.) could not assemble a majority for any version of it on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Rostenkowski tried on Ways and Means but then had to step aside after being indicted for defrauding the government. Compromise plans promoted by Congressman Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Senator John Chafee (R-R.I.) came to nothing. The Republicans dug in hostilely under Gingrich and Dole. At the end, Democratic compromise bills shaped by leaders Gephardt and Mitchell went nowhere. Meanwhile, the White House had to endure damaging Whitewater hearings run by Senator Donald Riegle (D-Mich.). In August 1994, the Democrats' omnibus crime bill, attacked by Gingrich as being loaded with "social pork," surprisingly fell short of a House majority (though a revised version later passed). Many other legislative items died as adjournment approached, although first-term Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) managed to salvage a major bill protecting the California desert. House Republican leaders Gingrich and Dick Armey (R-Tex.), in a striking September 1994 initiative, put forth an elaborate "Contract with America" program that became the GOP's November election centerpiece and then, in January 1995, that winning party's legislative agenda.
Consider too, for variety if not necessarily for contrast, the following sketch of Congress-related politics two centuries ago during the second term of George Washington. The same U.S. regime is on exhibit:
Shock waves from the radical phase of the French Revolution stirred U.S. domestic unrest and a foreign policy crisis during 1793-97. In 1793, House Republican spokesman James Madison (DR-Va.), spotting an unwelcome pro-British tilt in the Washington Administration's proclamation of neutrality vis-à-vis France and Britain, wrote a series of public essays as "Helvidius" claiming foreign policy powers for Congress. In January 1794, he brought to the House a series of anti-British "Commercial Propositions" that were countered by Congressman William L. Smith (Federalist-S.C.). Madison also balked at President Washington's condemnation of the effervescent new "democratic societies." In June 1795, the Federalist-controlled Senate voted 20 to 10 in secret session to approve the Jay Treaty-the Administration's new move to establish peace terms and trade relations with Britain. Senator Pierce Butler (DR-S.C.) leaked the treaty page-by-page to Madison, then Senator S.T. Mason (DR-Va.) leaked the full text to the public, and popular outrage ensued. Republicans in the House, the dominant party there, eventually moved to put their stamp on policy. Edward Livingston (DR-N.Y.) engineered a resolution asking Washington to turn over the Jay Treaty documents. The President refused. Madison argued that the House had a right to see the documents, and, beyond that, notwithstanding the Senate's assigned constitutional role as ratifier of treaties, to nullify a treaty by withholding appropriations. The strategy worked. A House majority-vote showdown kicked into place as inevitable. Both sides took to mobilizing public support, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and Senator Rufus King (F-N.Y.), for example, through writing essays as "Camillus" backing the treaty. A drawn-out, high-stakes endgame [rather like the one involving NAFTA in 1993] culminated in April 1796 in a moving House speech by the veteran Federalist spokesman Fisher Ames (F-Mass.) and a 49-49 tie vote broken in the treaty's favor by Frederick Muhlenberg (DR-Pa.), chairing the House's Committee of the Whole. The treaty survived. Otherwise in the mid-1790s, Albert Gallatin (DR Pa.) joined the House as a Republican leader-a key acquisition since no one else in the party approached Federalist policy leader Hamilton in fiscal expertise. Senator Aaron Burr (DR-N.Y.) aspired to the vice presidency in 1796 but lost. Senator William Blount (DR-Tenn.), like Congressman Thomas Scott (Pa.) a few years earlier, brought trouble on himself by conspiring with the British over western lands.
Public affairs in a democracy is, among other things, a stream of collective consciousness in which certain actions by individuals, including legislators like those cited above, come to be noticed and remembered. Individuals' actions seem to reach this standing if they are widely thought to be consequential, potentially consequential, or otherwise significant. They are observed by politically aware citizens trying to size up events in their environment. It is a good bet, for example, that millions of politics watchers considered Moynihan's grousing, Boren's footdragging on the budget, Rostenkowski's stepping aside as Ways and Means chair, and Gingrich's Contract with America initiative to be politically significant actions during 1993-94. When actions register as significant like this among an aware sector of the public, I want to argue here, they should be regarded as significant by any scholar who takes public affairs seriously. In the case of 1993-94, for anyone trying to track, examine, or characterize U.S. politics during those years, the moves by Rostenkowski, Gingrich, and the rest that were putatively widely judged to be politically significant can be taken, for analytic purposes, to have been politically significant. The widely recognized is, in this sense, the real. The standard for significance is immanent.
For this approach to be useful, the realm of public affairs has to amount to something, and I want to argue that it does. I see it as a busy time-stream of events featuring uncertainty, open deliberation and discussion, opinion formation, strutting and ambition, surprises, endless public moves and countermoves by politicians and other actors, rising and falling issues, and an attentive and sometimes participating audience of large numbers of citizens. Health-care politics in 1993-94 and Jay Treaty politics in 1795-96 provide cases in point. Public affairs, moreover, is a highly important realm in that much of what virtually anybody by any standard would consider to be politically important originates, is substantially caused, and happens within it-that is, is endogenous to it. This may be a commonsense view, but it is not all that common within the boundaries of modern social science, where politics tends to be seen as driven or determined by exogenous forces such as classes, interest groups, interests, or otherwise pre-politically caused preferences. In one limiting-case analysis, the economist George J. Stigler's well-known account of regulatory politics, public affairs shrinks to zero; all an analyst needs to examine or reckon with are imputed policy preferences (Industries want self-serving regulations) and policy results (they get them); the realm of public affairs does not enter the picture at all. For purposes of this book, I want to shake free from this idea of exogenous determination. Public affairs can matter; if so, it is worth focusing on.
Backup for such a focus can be found in political theory, though it needs to be assembled. One idea is that of the "public sphere" as it has been proposed and given empirical grounding by Jürgen Habermas. A kind of realm warranting that label, Habermas writes, appeared on the world scene in England in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century. It featured open and well-reported deliberation in Parliament, constant and open press criticism of the government, wide circulation of news, and attentiveness and sometimes assertiveness by a fairly broad public (the rising bourgeoisie, in Habermas's view). It was a major new development. This is theorizing in the German tradition in which authors take pains to characterize forms of actual political life; in Habermas's case both the characterization and the catchphrase (as translated into English) seem apt for my purposes-hence this book's title.
Surprisingly, the main American tradition of political theorizing-Locke and Montesquieu as recast by Madison and others in the late eighteenth century-does not give much attention to public affairs, as I have used that term here, or a "public sphere." Instead, interests, factions, and balancing among them are the familiar ingredients and emphases. Among those who have written about government by deliberation or by discussion, about public officials making moves before an attentive public, and about public opinion formation, the relevant authorities turn out to be a less prominent line extending from Harrington and Hume through-if anybody in the generation of the 1780s-James Wilson, though to some degree also Madison. Fortunately, this other tradition has been given new life in recent writings by Cass R. Sunstein and Samuel H. Beer. "The central idea here," Sunstein writes, for example, "is that politics has a deliberative or transformative dimension. Its function is to select values, to implement 'preferences about preferences,' or to provide opportunities for preference formation rather than simply to implement existing desires.... Moreover, the systems of checks and balances, bicameralism, and federalism responded to the central republican understanding that disagreement can be a creative force. National institutions were set up so as to ensure a measure of competition and dialogue; the federal system would produce both experimentation and mutual controls. In all these ways, the constitutional framework created a kind of deliberative democracy."
This is theory. How about practice? Has a "public sphere" existed and operated during the two centuries of American national history? My assumption here is yes. Obviously, media technology has changed immensely during that time, but a basic mix of openness, news coverage, moves by politicians, attentive strata of the public, and opinion fluidity has been there in the system from the start-well before the Contract with America, C-SPAN, or Larry King Live. Anyone who doubts that might consult, say, Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick's account of the handling of the Jay Treaty in 1795-96 or William Lee Miller's recent work on the campaign by Congressman John Quincy Adams (Whig-Mass.) and others, which caused a nationwide stir, to admit antislavery petitions to the House in the 1830s and 1840s. Britain has arguably been stable in these same basic respects during the past two centuries, even though the British electorate was of course small in the nineteenth century; a "public sphere" can exist without universal suffrage or mass participatory democracy. Continental Europe is another matter.
Such American stability makes possible the lineage described in this book from James Madison-as a member of the House-through Newt Gingrich. If a "public sphere" or a collective political consciousness does exist, elected legislators, of course, earn a wonderful chance to do things that register within it. With the member's job goes a license to persuade, connive, hatch ideas, propagandize, assail enemies, vote, build coalitions, shepherd legislation, and in general cut a figure in public affairs. A legislature can be a decision machine, a forum, an arena, a stage, or a spring-board. One member of Congress may craft bills; another may make deals; another may conduct investigations; another may undertake issue crusades; another may run for president. A member may do more than one of these things at the same time. The mix of actual member activities is, in one sense, determined by the Constitution's job description for House and Senate members, but in another sense it is empirical. You have to look and see. What sorts of member actions register in the collective political consciousness? Elect people to Congress, and what will they noticeably do?
Excerpted from America's Congress by DAVID R. MAYHEW Copyright © 2000 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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