Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post’s senior national affairs correspondent, covering domestic policy. She covered Congress for a decade, and is the author of two books, “Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship Is Poisoning the House of Representatives” and “Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks.”
If you are one of the many Americans who hates Congress, this book is for you.
In the Washington depicted in Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer’s new book, there are no heroes — only winners and losers. In the constant quest for power, lawmakers will do almost anything: betray their allies, curry favor with donors and engage in posturing that will do little to help the men and women they’re elected to represent.
“People joke that Washington is Hollywood for ugly people,” Sherman and Palmer write in the introduction of “The Hill to Die On: The Battle for Congress and the Future of Trump’s America,” invoking a trope that has been used many times to describe America’s political elite. “It’s more like Hollywood for people who can’t afford nice clothes because they stay in low-paying jobs for too long in their never-ending quest for power.”
Actually, it’s a little more complicated than that. As dysfunctional as Congress has become, there are still members on both sides who are motivated by ideas and believe that their actions can make an impact. And voters — those quixotic folks who keep installing one party in power, just to swap it for the other, in rapid succession — influence events, even though they are nearly absent from this book.
But no one can deny that Congress has become diminished in recent years and that many of its leaders have been more focused on their personal and party fortunes at the public’s expense. Few are better positioned to capture this posturing than Sherman and Palmer, who anchor Politico’s popular morning newsletter Playbook along with their colleague Daniel Lippman.
It is a testament to the authors’ formidable work ethic that they’ve managed to produce a full-length book 2 1/2 years after Donald Trump won the presidency, even as they’ve continued to crank out a daily tipsheet for political junkies. For the book, they mined their sources on Capitol Hill for details about key congressional moments during the Trump era, during which the president has upended every convention that defined Washington and forced politicians and journalists to adapt.
But given the rapid nature of modern journalism, some of the nuggets billed in publicity notes as scoops are now common knowledge. This includes the fact that Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was prepared to retire if Hillary Clinton won the presidency — but chose to stay when she lost. And in an era when the White House is a never-ending source of stunning revelations, some incendiary comments made behind closed doors on Capitol Hill don’t carry the same punch.
The book’s strongest moments center on a handful of House Republicans who either occupy formal leadership positions — such as Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Minority Whip Steve Scalise (La.) — or shadow posts, including Freedom Caucus co-chairs Mark Meadows (N.C.) and Jim Jordan (Ohio). All of them are prominent conservatives in Trump’s orbit, and each of them — along with former speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — gave the authors plenty of access.
With these lawmakers, Sherman and Palmer get inside their heads and capture what they’re thinking in real time. They offer particularly interesting insights into Scalise, who nearly died June 14, 2017, after being shot multiple times by an Illinois man who targeted Republicans as they practiced for the annual congressional baseball game. They depict not just his physique (“His round stomach — the evidence, perhaps, of too many steak dinners and glasses of red wine — always protruded over his white baseball pants”) but also the thoughts that raced through the Louisianan’s mind after the barrage of bullets: “Don’t let me bleed out on this field.”
After a remarkable recovery, Scalise didn’t just return to his position as the House’s No. 3 Republican. Having dutifully served as McCarthy’s junior, Scalise was now willing to consider challenging him in a leadership election. Describing his return to the House 3½ months after the shooting, Sherman and Palmer write: “Scalise had made it. He was back. He had no fear.” Still, he could never quite muster the courage to run against McCarthy in a leadership race. And when reports surfaced that he had secretly met with his aides in Washington just before the 2016 election to discuss a possible run, he blamed the media, texting “WTF” to his rival.
Other top House Republicans are equally ambitious. Meadows and Jordan, for example, roil their party by ensuring that the two dozen members of the House Freedom Caucus vote in lockstep and by making back-door appeals to Trump. Even Jordan is aware of the irony, given their support of free-market principles: “But we’re a union. And we have to function like a union if we’re going to get something done.”
And while the book devotes less time to the Senate, Sherman and Palmer tease out some revealing comments from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) about how he was able to leverage Republicans’ control of the executive and legislative branches to cement conservatives’ control of the federal judiciary. Reams have been written about McConnell’s judicial strategy, so there are no new revelations about his tactics. But as he reflects on winning Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, the majority leader can’t resist explaining how CNN carried his floor speeches live for a week and how the furor boosted his stock with Republicans: “I know it won’t last. But for the moment, I’m a rock star.”
Trump and some of his top advisers, such as his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, come off as buffoons in this account. Kushner complains about the inefficiency of the congressional committee process, telling Ryan’s aides, “We’ll get to that later,” as if he could upend the legislative branch single-handedly. At one point lawmakers think the president is taking careful notes on their infrastructure plan, only to learn that he’s scribbling “SLOPPY STEVE,” his new nickname for then-adviser Steve Bannon. And time and again, Trump tweets something that undermines congressional Republicans’ agenda or mismanages a legislative standoff with Democrats. Referring to the recent budget impasse over funding for a border wall, Sherman and Palmer write, “Watching the president during the shutdown was a bit like watching someone at a control panel who had no idea what any of the buttons did.” At one meeting with House Republicans, after Rep. Bill Posey (Fla.) chastised the president for fixating on the crowd size at his inauguration, they report, Trump responded, “Who the f--- are you?”
While there is broad agreement that Trump mismanaged the shutdown, it’s an overstatement to imply that he served only as an irritant to Republican leaders hoping to advance their goals. White House officials played a modest role in the 2017 tax overhaul, but they have been critical players in judicial fights as well as in rolling back Obama-era regulations that GOP lawmakers had railed against for years. And Trump has leveraged his popularity among base voters far more effectively than Barack Obama ever did. The authors mock Trump for touting how his tweets boosted Ron DeSantis’s electoral fortunes, but the fact is the former House member might not have made it to Florida’s governor’s mansion without the president’s enthusiastic endorsement.
By contrast, Sherman and Palmer take pains to point out how much anguish Ryan felt about his role as one of Trump’s allies — even though it made little difference in the end. Describing his frustration at both moderates and conservatives just weeks before retiring, they write: “To his mind, he came to Washington to do big things. But here again was the game playing. The hostage taking. The intellectual dishonesty. The backstabbing. He had thought he would end all of it. And he was looking forward to not being a part of it anymore.” But they fail to note the irony in his response: Ryan calls for party unity, even though it means stifling a bipartisan immigration compromise that he had backed in the past.
Only at the very end of the book, when Ryan refuses to risk Trump’s veto by sending a funding bill to the president that might have averted the border wall impasse, do the authors hold him accountable. “And so the responsible steward of good government would end his speakership with the government shut down.”
Democrats play a role in this drama, too, of course, but they seem more peripheral because most of the book’s reporting took place before they won back the House. Sherman and Palmer’s rootedness in Washington, moreover, undercuts their ability to capture how Democrats tapped into the intensity of some Americans’ distaste for Trump. At the start of the book it looks like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s executive director, Dan Sena, will be a major figure, but he fades away only to reappear a few times in later chapters. There is not a single scene of him going out to recruit a candidate in a swing district — or something comparable that would capture how voters felt in the run-up to the midterms. The authors depict Pelosi, who reclaimed the speaker’s gavel in January, as smart but egotistical, and constantly feuding with her deputy, Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.). And they recount the bellwether Democratic primary in Queens from the perspective of the incumbent who lost, Joe Crowley, rather than the woman who beat him and is now helping reshape the Democratic Party, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
What I missed most of all in the book was something simple: voters’ voices. Told almost entirely from an inside-the-Beltway perspective, Sherman and Palmer’s book depicts men and women operating in a universe that is completely detached from the rest of America. While that does reflect part of why many Americans resent Congress, it’s also why some Americans mistrust the reporters who cover it.
to Die On
By Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer
420 pp. $28