The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Congress is a mess, these books argue — but maybe not messy enough

Rep. Katie Porter and political scientist Philip Wallach decry rigid politics and urge a return to robust debates with a mix of voices

The Capitol dome, as reflected in a puddle. Polls show that most Americans have a low opinion of Congress, but two new books offer reminders of its importance. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
9 min

Want to overcome the profound political polarization America is suffering these days? Bring up Congress. We all love to hate it.

In a Gallup poll taken last fall, fully three-quarters of respondents disapproved of the job their elected representatives were doing. This is not a new thing: Presidents have built whole campaigns around decrying the many-faced, rules-bound, stubbornly deliberative body. Heck, some members of Congress have made national reputations by dumping on the institution they spent millions to join.

One of those is Katie Porter, whose tangy tell-all about her first four years in the House of Representatives appears to have been timed for the launch of the California Democrat’s Senate campaign. In characteristic china-shattering fashion, Porter announced her bid for the seat now occupied by Sen. Dianne Feinstein before the 89-year-old Democrat made her plans to retire official.

But if Porter’s book, along with a much more academic one by political scientist Philip Wallach, provides plenty of fodder to confirm the popular stereotype of Congress as a sometimes-elitist, often-bumbling collection of opportunists, both also manage to make the case for the vital role it plays in the American democratic experiment and the need for members and the people they represent to recognize that.

“We should realize what a precarious achievement our constitutional order is, and how indispensable congressional representation is to maintaining it,” Wallach writes in his historical analysis, “Why Congress.”

The tone is much more rollicking in Porter’s book. The title, “I Swear,” is a double entendre that will be immediately recognizable to aficionados of the representative’s salty style. There are plenty of those: The $25.6 million she raised to win her third term last year made Porter one of the top three fundraisers in the House, along with then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and soon-to-be-Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). Even more impressive, more than half of her funding came in donations of less than $200.

Writing in a voice that alternates between the witheringly satirical and the breezily self-deprecating (think Erma Bombeck goes to Capitol Hill), Porter throws plenty of shade on fellow members of the House, including — and perhaps especially — members of her own party.

She skewers “Washington insiders, including lobbyists and House leadership” for pushing bills “too often bought and paid for by big corporations,” and she portrays Congress as an elitist club whose punishingly unpredictable schedule and requirement to maintain two households (one of them in one of the country’s priciest real estate markets) discourages all but wealthy people with grown children or stay-at-home spouses from serving. “Congress is full of multimillionaires for the same reason that the NBA is full of tall people,” Porter writes. “It’s easier to get recruited and win with such advantages.”

As “the first working single mother of young children to serve in Congress,” Porter says, she spent a quarter of her take-home pay on child care when she first got to the House and rented a $1,600-a-month apartment “that came with a mattress on the floor, no Wi-Fi, and cockroaches.”

An unabashed girly-girl who lipsticks her mouth into a Clara Bow pout and prefers brightly colored dresses to dour pantsuits — she thinks she lost a job at the Federal Reserve when she wore open-toed kitten heels and a bright-red pedicure to a job interview — Porter grew up on a family farm in Iowa. Her dad’s financial struggles made an indelible impression. Brainy and ambitious enough to win scholarships to Yale and Harvard Law School, she learned bankruptcy law from future senator Elizabeth Warren.

As a law professor at the University of California at Irvine, Porter did a groundbreaking study on predatory mortgage practices and worked for then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris to try to end them. In congressional hearings, she’s made a name for herself with booby-trap questions she’s lobbed at the chief executives of Equifax, Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase, as well as top government officials such as Robert Redfield and Kathy Kraninger, respectively the directors of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in President Donald Trump’s administration.

But Porter’s superpower is her credential as a populist everywoman. She shares her need for the car A/C to be “menopausal-level frigid” and her fondness for “stretchy pandemic bras.” She confides how she cried when social media posters called her fat and admits that going public with details of her divorce (to preempt political attacks) embarrassed her three school-age kids. As she says in her book’s subtitle: “Politics is messier than my minivan.”

Funny she should bring that up. In his far more academic “Why Congress,” American Enterprise Institute senior fellow Philip Wallach makes a passionate case for messy.

A former fellow with the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, Wallach holds a PhD from Princeton University. As it happens, that also was the academic home of the chief philosophical villain of Wallach’s book, Woodrow Wilson. Before becoming the nation’s 28th president, Wilson (now suffering a reputational reversal for his retrograde policies on race relations) served as president of Princeton, where he taught political science. Wallach credits him with originating the idea that Congress should behave more like the British Parliament, where the members’ job is to represent political parties that give voters a clear choice between competing ideologies.

Wallach says that’s exactly what Congresses since the era of House Speakers Jim Wright and Newt Gingrich have been doing. He sees members fall in lockstep behind party leaders who control the congressional agenda and suppress dissent in the interest of crafting a national message designed to win presidential elections.

And that, Wallach argues, undermines Congress’s role as a counterbalance to the often imperial impulses of the executive branch.

He urges a return to the “messier Madisonian tradition.” James Madison, the nation’s fourth president and an author of the Constitution, envisioned a Congress where the polarizing influence of “faction” would be countered by alliances of convenience among strong personalities representing sharply defined constituencies. To wit, Porter, who writes: “I ran for Congress to be the voice of the minivan drivers and parents who silently lament $20 field trip fees.”

A Congress of powerful committee chairs who can create “venues for discovering cross-partisan commonalities” would promote the kind of ever-shifting odd-bedfellow coalitions that, Wallach asserts, are “better suited to coping with the complexity of life in our extended Republic.”

Some of Wallach’s arguments will ring more persuasive to today’s ears than others. He makes a compelling case for Congress’s refusal to set aside petty parochial politics even in the face of World War II. Lawmakers’ decision to put the brakes on some of Franklin Roosevelt’s more ambitious taxation efforts to fund the war played an important part in building national unity, he writes: “Far better than the president, legislators were attuned to just how much sacrifice their constituents could be asked to make.”

The coronavirus pandemic might not have been such a polarizing crisis had Congress similarly pushed back on the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration, Wallach believes. Politicians are better than technocrats at coming up with ways to cope with the upheavals that wars and pandemics bring, he writes, “because they are representative and forced to take in all manner of considerations,” such as the social costs of keeping schools and businesses closed.

Porter writes of her willingness to take unpopular stands and make her case to the people. “As I see it, the real work of Congress is civic education,” says the former professor, who regularly totes whiteboards to hearings and town hall meetings to help her in that task.

Wallach is on more treacherous ground when he argues that filibusters and other congressional delaying tactics help build the necessary consensus for social change. The prolonged fight in the 1960s to overcome filibusters against civil rights legislation “was completely necessary to changing the politics of the issue such that the policy change would be accepted and endure,” he writes. Recent backsliding on the issue, however, tends to undermine that assertion.

Similar objections could be raised to Wallach’s argument that executive action on immigration short-circuits the debates necessary to build consensus for change. That might sound good to political scientists. But what about the Dreamers, some of whom were brought here as small children and now face deportation from the only country they’ve ever known? Sadly, congressional deliberation is not a victimless time.

Though he portrays himself as a congressional traditionalist, Wallach ends by proposing some relatively radical reforms. Among them: an expansion of the House by more than 100 seats; campaign finance laws designed to “magnify the influence of small donors” and counter the “increasingly nationalized” nature of fundraising; and ranked-choice voting in place of traditional party primaries that are “dominated by the ideologically extreme.”

Whether you agree with Wallach’s recommendations or Porter’s progressive politics, it’s hard to argue with the plea both these books make, in very different ways, for reforming the institution we all love to hate: a Congress that has increasingly abdicated its role as home of robust debate but that still has the power to change so many lives for the better.

Wallach ends his book with an open letter to lawmakers “to think differently about the body you are part of and about the responsibility that comes with the privilege of holding your office.”

For all her kvetching, Porter too argues that Congress can be “a rewarding, productive place” and worries about Americans’ cynicism toward the institution that came under attack on Jan. 6, 2021. “The job sucks,” concludes the congresswoman who would be senator. “But the work is amazing.”

Katie Porter will discuss “I Swear” at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St. NW, on April 19 at 7 p.m. $20.

Kathy Kiely is the Lee Hills chair in free-press studies at the Missouri School of Journalism.

I Swear

Politics Is Messier Than My Minivan

By Katie Porter

Crown. 284 pp. $28

Why Congress

By Philip A. Wallach

Oxford University Press. 322 pp. $29.95

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