August 27, 2013

What should a (soon to be) incoming senator read to learn about the job and the world he’s about to enter?

Ezra Klein makes an excellent case against one option: “This Town.” I haven’t read the book, but I did read the NYT Magazine excerpt, which was all about someone who worked for Darrell Issa, in the press office, and how he was going to make Issa a big deal. Missing from the excerpt (and as far as I can tell, from the book), was that (1) the thing that made Issa a potential big deal wasn’t appearances on Fox News but rather his position in the House; and, (2) that Issa has basically squandered that opportunity over the last 2½  years. His investigations, which indeed seem designed more for Fox News than for real government oversight, haven’t done anyone any good.

Klein:

“This Town” isn’t a book about Washington. It’s a book about (mostly) permanent members of Washington’s political-communications complex. The key characters are mostly people who, in some way or another, get paid to talk about politics. [...]

The bad news about “This Town” is that the political-communications complex is kind of an awful place. The good news is that it really doesn’t matter.

The political-communications complex gets a lot of press for itself because the political-communications complex includes the press as well as the key political staffers whose job it is to talk to the press. But the attention is far out of proportion to the complex’s power.

That’s all exactly right. As is Klein’s emphasis on the real and important influence of people who actually do the substantive work of governing the nation, whether they are in the White House, the executive branch departments and agencies, the congressional committees and subcommittees, the organized interest groups or wherever else.

It’s not that the first group are always totally irrelevant … but they often are totally irrelevant. And when they matter, they matter, as Klein says, far less than outside observers would think.

So, what should an incoming senator read? I’d certainly recommend Wonkblog — it’s an excellent way to get a quick, good grasp of many important policy issues. I’d also recommend reading The Monkey Cage, especially (of course) anything on Senate procedure from Sarah Binder.

Books? Political scientist Richard Fenno has written extensively about representation, using members of the House and senators as his examples. It’s a bit dated in some of the details (and unjustly out of print), but I’d still recommend Fenno’s “The Emergence of a Senate Leader: Pete Domenici and the Reagan Budget.” Meanwhile, for procedure, you have two choices: For the simple version watch “I’m Just a Bill,” and for the complexities of the current process, go to Barbara Sinclair’s “Unorthodox Lawmaking.”

And for something up to date, there is Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein’s “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks” — as long as it’s read for how Congress should work, not just as a source for GOP-bashing talking points.

That’s what I would give a new senator. What do you think?