About midway through his new book, Act of Congress, our colleague Bob Kaiser recalls German statesman Otto von Bismarck’s observation:
“Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.”
Kaiser’s deftly written, behind-the-scenes account of the making of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill — Congress’s response to the great financial crisis of 2008 — takes us through the congressional grinder on an often cringe-inducing journey.
We see Congress — despite Democratic control of both the Senate and House — in the era of bitter and endless partisan warfare, barely, just barely, able to react to the biggest financial meltdown since the Great Depression.
And it was able to do so largely as a result of huge public outrage and the wits and political skills of former Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) who granted Kaiser access to them and their staffs as the bill took shape.
We find many, if not a strong majority, of our lawmakers, wrangling over and then voting on a bill they at best vaguely understand. We discover why members of Congress are not often seen carrying stacks of papers — it’s because they get the one-pager from their aides.
And, as Kaiser illustrates, they are wholly dependent on their staffs to carry them through. The power of congressional aides — for good or ill — is disconcerting.
But the members are Einsteins all when it comes to knowing the politics involved in the bill and in protecting their committee turf and reelection prospects.
The huge amounts of money at stake naturally made for massive lobbying on both sides. Kaiser reveals some stunning and crucial deals — including one Frank made to neutralize opposition from small banks — were made in total secrecy, and “never reported anywhere in the news media.”
And so the biggest changes in the rules governing the U.S. financial system in 80 years were enacted, overturning the deregulation philosophy that largely caused the disaster in the first place.
“Isn’t that grounds for hope?” Kaiser asks. “Hope perhaps, but not optimism,” he concludes.
The subtitle of the book is “How America’s essential institution works, and how it doesn’t.”
Mostly it doesn’t. And things have only gotten worse.