Politics in the People's Chamber

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 4, 2006 | Go to article overview

Politics in the People's Chamber


Byline: Michael P. Riccards, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

When John Larson was elected to the House of Representatives, he looked for a history of that body so he could better understand the institution. He found the magisterial history of the Senate done by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, but not an equivalent for the House. With support of the current Speaker, J. Dennis Hastert, the representatives passed legislation that authorized the writing of a narrative history of the House, and later restored the position Historian of the House.

To write this history, the great Librarian of Congress, James Billington, appointed Robert V. Remini as visiting scholar of the John W. Kluge Center. Mr. Remini, from the University of Illinois - Speaker Hastert's state - had compiled an extraordinary career as a biographer of the Jacksonian period. Indeed, his multi-volume treatment of Andrew Jackson is a major landmark in American historiography: Volume three earned Mr. Remini the National Book Award.

Mr. Remini remarks that he is really a biographer, not a narrative historian. If that were so, he has made a flawless transition with this volume. For this is a history of the United States through the prism of the House of Representatives.

He ably sketches the conditions that have had an impact on national politics, and how national politics have influenced the House. And Mr. Remini at times deals with the major social issues of the day - the changing role of African Americans, the voting aspirations of women, the incredible corruption of the post-Civil War era, the stresses of international leadership. This is a fine book by a very fine historian. The House is very fortunate to get a figure of his stature as its resurrected House historian.

Mr. Remini reminds us that the Founding Fathers saw the balance of power in government as heavily tipped toward the legislature, and not the president or the federal courts. The early Founders were, in Thomas Jefferson's words, good Whigs in their politics - they supported legislative supremacy in all things. It was the House, led by James Madison of Virginia, that took the leadership in championing the Bill of Rights. It was the House that debated and discussed in a very critical way Hamilton's economic plan and was very concerned about funding the Jay Treaty.

The Senate was meant to be a deliberative body; the House was supposed to be the cauldron of public opinion. Mr. Remini shows how crisis, especially war, leads to executive aggrandizement at the expense of Congress. Leadership styles differed even in the early years: Washington was regal; Jefferson was a behind-the-scenes operator; Madison seemed to have lost his touch in dealing with the legislative branch during his terms in office. …

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