Much of the considerable body of published work about Congress has been written by political scientists. Academic jargon and the anonymity of the actors make many of these accounts of Congress boring. Actually, Congress is never boring, for the legislative process involves the whims and fancies of 535 individuals. Mike Gravel's peevish bad manners, Adlai Stevenson's patrician aloofness and Russell Long's delight in manipulation for its own sake are all part of "Congressional Odyssey," an account of how an obscure inland waterways bill introduced by a junior Republican senator made legislative history.
Author T.R. Reid, a Washington Post reporter, was fortunate in the choice of this legislation, a proposed user fee to help pay for the development and maintenance of the nation's waterways. Although the revenues involved were sizable, the scope of the bill was narrow. At various times it was a rider on other pieces of legislation, but most of the time the issues were straightforward.
Similar legislation had been introduced repeatedly since Franklin Roosevelt's administration, but had gotten nowwhere. In the 95th Congress the proposal, put foward this time by Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, became law. Over 21 months, The Post ran periodic stories by Reid, who had been assigned to write about the legislation in order to help readers understand how Congress works. It is upon this series of stories that "Congressional Odyssey" is based.
Reid's book is a literate account of the legislative process, painted in the ambivalent grays which correctly characterize it. There are no villains and no heroes, and that is as it should be. Nor are there any easy solutions. The final legislation is not perfect, being, as most legislation is, the product of many, many compromises.
Reid does a good job of explaining procedural detail, an important part of the legislative process. He also emphasizes the importance of congressional staffs, particulary in the Senate. The waterway user charge was the pet idea of a Senate Public Works Committee staff member, Hal Brayman, who had been trying to sell it to a senator for years. Several had been interested, but the idea got nowhere until Domenice took up the cudgel for it in 1977.
How Domenici, a senator from a state with no inland waterways, happened to introduce this bill illustrates well the role of chance and personality in legislation. Domenici was a new senator facing his first campaign for reelection. He wanted to be able to go back to the voters in his state, point to a piece of legislation, and say, "That's my bill. I got it passed." Plenty of politicians take credit for legislation in which they had only a small hand, or even none at all, but Domenici wanted to take credit only if he had made an important contribution. A member of the Water Resources Subcommittee of the Public Works Committee, Domenici was casting about for a horse to ride when a barge-line executive testifying at a subcommittee hearing so irritated him by questioning his interest in waterways that he decided to introduce a user-charge bill.
Reid describes the mysterious process of lobbying. He is particularly good at explaining how railroad money was "laundered" to satisfy the fastidious Environmental Policy Center which did not want other contributors to know it was getting funds from an ecologically unsutiable source. However, the center and other public-interest lobbies in fact were getting funds from the railroads with which to lobby for the user charge, which the railroads supported because their competition, the barge lines, would have to pay it.
Reid acknowledges that the fact that The Post was publishing regular articles about the process of the user bill contributed to its successful odyssey. "You know," Domenici told him, "there's probably 500 good policy ideas floating around on the Hill at any one time, but most of them just aren't getting on the front page of The Post every week."
Daily newspapers generally fail the public in their coverage of Congress. Their stories tend to be episodic and superficial, thus contributing little to the public's understanding. There are notable exceptions, but most newspapers have neither the resources to devote to the job nor any real interest in doing it. Careful explanations of the legislative process do not make good copy, or so the reasoning goes. They are boring. There is also a journalistic cynicism about Congress which Reid escaped, perhaps because he was new to the job. Everything he saw still excited him.
"Congressional Odyssey" is a valuable book and should be read in beginning courses in American government to give the subject the human dimension it too often lacks in the classroom.