Monthly Archives: October 2013

Act of Congress

I recently finished reading, Act of Congress, by Robert Kaiser, which describes the entire process from the financial meltdown in 2008 through the enactment of the Dodd-Frank Act to regulate banks in 2010.  I spotted the book on display in the window of the Senate Library, which was more than enough recommendation for me.  Unfortunately, it appeared that I was not alone in taking advantage of insights from the Senate Library, and by the time I tried to check it out a week before I left, I was fourth down on the list.  I was likewise unsuccessful obtaining it from the Library of Congress.  So a total of two cities and five libraries into my quest, I found a copy of the book at the Wethersfield, Connecticut public library and I prepared myself to be enlightened.

I highly recommend the book.  It is extremely well written and provides an unusually detailed perspective on the path of legislation going from an idea to a law.  Yes, there is much more to it than the Schoolhouse Rock, “I’m Just a Bill,” which provided the entirety of my insight prior to becoming a Fellow.  This piece of legislation was originally a proposal from the Obama administration suggested to the House and the Senate.  Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) was Chair of the House Financial Services Committee that worked through the bill and got it passed.  Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) was likewise Chair of the Senate Banking Committee that picked up the concept and worked out a different version of the bill.  In the House, Frank’s challenge was creating a bill that could be endorsed by the entire Democratic caucus to ensure its passage.  In the Senate, Dodd was determined to try to work out a bipartisan compromise bill, but the determination of the Republican Party leadership to deny President Obama any significant legislative triumphs ultimately shut down that option.

The two bills that passed the separate chambers had significant differences, so both chambers authorized the formation of a conference committee to reconcile the two versions into a single bill that would be re-passed by both chambers.  Conferences had been a rarity for a while on Capitol Hill since they require good faith negotiating by all parties.  Indeed with the current government shutdown over the Continuing Resolution to fund the government, the two chambers are indulging in what is known as “ping pong,” which avoids a conference and simply sends a bill with different amendments back and forth.

One of the details in the book that caused no end of surprise for the author is that the Congressional Staff are at the heart of any piece of legislation.  Having spent a year on the Hill, I simply understand that to be so.  I can’t imagine any Member of Congress with the time or inclination to become an expert on the nuances of all the different issues he or she must address.  It makes sense to me to have experts on staff to do the research and make sure that the best possible decisions get made.  Even on a single committee such as Energy and Natural Resources, there are staff who deal with the details of energy issues and separate staff who specialize in natural resources and public lands.  Although the author felt this staff involvement was a dirty little secret, I think it makes sense.

One aspect that I particularly enjoyed in the book was learning a bit more about several Senators who I observed over the past year.  Normally when a bill is on the Senate floor, there are two Floor Managers assigned to handle the flow of amendments, votes, and speeches relating to the bill.  The Floor Managers are generally the Chair and Ranking Member of the committee that handled the bill since those two Senators should know the most about the bill.  In the case of Dodd-Frank, Ranking Member Shelby had been unable to participate in bipartisan negotiations, either through personal inclination or through political pressure from his party not to cooperate, so Senator Dodd managed the floor action alone.  The only Member-level assistance he received came from Senator Mark Warner, who at the time was a very junior member from Virginia.  Sen. Warner is gifted with the habits of an old-time Senator, and he spends a fair amount of time on the floor talking to other Senators and building relationships in that process known as, “working the room.”   I enjoyed the insight that he has had those habits since his arrival.

Senator Bob Corker from Tennessee worked very effectively with Sen. Warner on the Banking Committee to try to hash out one of the areas covered by the bill.  I had noticed his work when the immigration bill came to the floor this past spring, and I appreciate his willingness to work in a bipartisan manner to reach reasonable solutions.  He was not senior enough in the Republican Party at the time to have a strong influence on other members, but a number of his suggestions made it into the bill.

Senator Elizabeth Warren first blipped my radar as she was running for election this past fall in Massachusetts, so having read Act of Congress, I now understand that she was the genesis of the idea for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  I had observed that she obviously did her homework and learned the Senate Rules quickly because when she presided on the floor, she rarely needed to consult with the parliamentarian.  That she has a long history of quelling rebellious undergraduates was obvious in her ability to bring order to her sometimes unruly colleagues in the Senate.  Now that I appreciate that her professional specialization as a Harvard Professor was in the history of banking regulation, I am even more amused at the CNBC new clip that made the rounds demonstrating several news anchors trying to tell her that she didn’t know what she was talking about.  The video demonstrates that it was not a wise move.

The author had unusually unfettered access to Members and staff to write his book, and he provided valuable insight into the unique alignment of public opinion demanding action along with two talented veteran legislators chairing the relevant House and Senate committees so that the bill could be moved forward.  Especially for people who enjoy procedure, the book is an excellent read.


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