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An eye-opening account of how Congress today really works—and doesn’t—that follows the dramatic journey of the sweeping financial reform bill enacted in response to the Great Crash of 2008. The founding fathers expected Congress to be the most important branch of government and gave it the most power. When Congress is broken—as its justifiably dismal approval ratings sugges An eye-opening account of how Congress today really works—and doesn’t—that follows the dramatic journey of the sweeping financial reform bill enacted in response to the Great Crash of 2008. The founding fathers expected Congress to be the most important branch of government and gave it the most power. When Congress is broken—as its justifiably dismal approval ratings suggest—so is our democracy. Here, Robert G. Kaiser, whose long and distinguished career at The Washington Post has made him as keen and knowledgeable an observer of Congress as we have, takes us behind the sound bites to expose the protocols, players, and politics of the House and Senate—revealing both the triumphs of the system and (more often) its fundamental flaws.  Act of Congress tells the story of the Dodd-Frank Act, named for the two men who made it possible: Congressman Barney Frank, brilliant and sometimes abrasive, who mastered the details of financial reform, and Senator Chris Dodd, who worked patiently for months to fulfill his vision of a Senate that could still work on a bipartisan basis. Both Frank and Dodd collaborated with Kaiser throughout their legislative efforts and allowed their staffs to share every step of the drafting and deal making that produced the 1,500-page law that transformed America’s financial sector. Kaiser explains how lobbying affects a bill—or fails to. We follow staff members more influential than most senators and congressmen. We see how Congress members protect their own turf, often without regard for what might best serve the country—more eager to court television cameras than legislate on complicated issues about which many of them remain ignorant. Kaiser shows how ferocious partisanship regularly overwhelms all other considerations, though occasionally individual integrity prevails. Act of Congress, as entertaining as it is enlightening, is an indispensable guide to a vital piece of our political system desperately in need of reform.


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An eye-opening account of how Congress today really works—and doesn’t—that follows the dramatic journey of the sweeping financial reform bill enacted in response to the Great Crash of 2008. The founding fathers expected Congress to be the most important branch of government and gave it the most power. When Congress is broken—as its justifiably dismal approval ratings sugges An eye-opening account of how Congress today really works—and doesn’t—that follows the dramatic journey of the sweeping financial reform bill enacted in response to the Great Crash of 2008. The founding fathers expected Congress to be the most important branch of government and gave it the most power. When Congress is broken—as its justifiably dismal approval ratings suggest—so is our democracy. Here, Robert G. Kaiser, whose long and distinguished career at The Washington Post has made him as keen and knowledgeable an observer of Congress as we have, takes us behind the sound bites to expose the protocols, players, and politics of the House and Senate—revealing both the triumphs of the system and (more often) its fundamental flaws.  Act of Congress tells the story of the Dodd-Frank Act, named for the two men who made it possible: Congressman Barney Frank, brilliant and sometimes abrasive, who mastered the details of financial reform, and Senator Chris Dodd, who worked patiently for months to fulfill his vision of a Senate that could still work on a bipartisan basis. Both Frank and Dodd collaborated with Kaiser throughout their legislative efforts and allowed their staffs to share every step of the drafting and deal making that produced the 1,500-page law that transformed America’s financial sector. Kaiser explains how lobbying affects a bill—or fails to. We follow staff members more influential than most senators and congressmen. We see how Congress members protect their own turf, often without regard for what might best serve the country—more eager to court television cameras than legislate on complicated issues about which many of them remain ignorant. Kaiser shows how ferocious partisanship regularly overwhelms all other considerations, though occasionally individual integrity prevails. Act of Congress, as entertaining as it is enlightening, is an indispensable guide to a vital piece of our political system desperately in need of reform.

30 review for Act of Congress: How America's Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn't

  1. 5 out of 5

    Lobstergirl

    Here’s the hilarious thing: even after reading this 386 page book on the Dodd-Frank law – I still would not be able to give you a list of bullet points of what exactly is in the bill. A ha ha HAHAHAHAHAHA! I could tell you a couple of the main features. But for a full list I would have to go read Wikipedia. (Actually the Wikipedia entry for the law has a warning label: “This article may be too technical for most readers to understand. Please help improve this article to make it understandable to Here’s the hilarious thing: even after reading this 386 page book on the Dodd-Frank law – I still would not be able to give you a list of bullet points of what exactly is in the bill. A ha ha HAHAHAHAHAHA! I could tell you a couple of the main features. But for a full list I would have to go read Wikipedia. (Actually the Wikipedia entry for the law has a warning label: “This article may be too technical for most readers to understand. Please help improve this article to make it understandable to non-experts, without removing the technical details.” I’m excited already!) Three stars because the book is a bit dry. You might expect a book about the politics of legislating to be dry, but there’s really no reason it has to be. There was some excess: for instance, I don’t care about Chris Dodd’s father (I’ve actually read an entire book about his father), or Chris Dodd’s early career. But along with the dry parts were some rather intriguing and disgusting parts. Let me tell you, you can’t even believe some of the base treachery that goes on in the halls of Congress! Three stars too because of the title, which is a ridiculous bait and switch. You pick up the book thinking it’s a book about the general dysfunctionality of Congress. No, it’s a book about the writing and passage of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. I guess Kaiser or his editor figured nobody, literally nobody, wanted to read the story of Dodd-Frank. But I do! And I did! To briefly summarize: 1. Some (many?) members of Congress are not that smart. Some are just downright stupid. Kaiser singled out Carolyn Maloney and Michelle Bachmann; Maloney mattered in this case because she sits on the Committee on Financial Services. It might make sense to relocate her to the Committee on Play-Doh or something similar? Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid didn’t seem to be expert on anything. Fortunately, Barney Frank was highly intelligent and Chris Dodd moderately so. Without the help of their staff, some of whom were expert or became expert in financial areas, they could not have been successful in crafting the legislation. To be clear, staffers do almost everything when it comes to crafting legislation. Ted Kennedy said that staffers do 95% of the work on Capitol Hill. 2. Of the 535 members of Congress, Kaiser estimated perhaps 25 have “a sophisticated understanding of the financial markets and their regulation.” Paul Volcker and his assistant, who were active participants, realized that many members who were taking positions on these issues had little comprehension of them. Few of them “really understand how a bank works, or even what a hedge fund is.” On one conference call some members were misusing the term “proprietary trading,” which is what the Volcker rule sought to ban. Volcker’s assistant asked them how they were defining it and got back gibberish answers. 3. Financial reform was only able to succeed because the public saw it as necessary. The crash of 2008 had just happened. The Great Recession was underway. Often crisis is needed to pass major legislation. In spite of this, the Republicans fought financial reform tooth and nail – although spouting platitudes the entire time about how they did want reform. Republicans didn’t just want to severely limit reform because they were pro-business and pro-Wall Street, which they were; the order came down from Mitch McConnell to not give Obama any victories. There were Republicans who, without McConnell in the picture, would have been completely willing to support the legislation: Richard Shelby, Bob Corker, probably Spencer Bachus. But they got their marching orders and became complete obstructionists. They would say perfectly reasonable things to Dodd or Frank one day, and then the next day after reading the Republican talking points memo from Frank Luntz they would insist the legislation allowed for “bailouts” (it didn’t) and that it was a jobs killer (it wasn’t). Judy Biggert (R-IL) even insisted the bill contained new taxes; the bill had nothing to do with taxes. Shelby had worked closely with Dodd for months on what items would be in the bill, and had never mentioned Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac; yet when the time to vote yay or nay came, he suddenly cynically objected that the legislation did not reform these entities. 4. Although the Senate version of the bill was debated on the Senate floor, these discussions lacked substance – because Republicans were content to bullshit and obfuscate. The Senate version of the bill had also never gotten substantive hearings or debate in the Banking Committee, because Shelby had not offered up any amendments in committee. Without Republican amendments, there was nothing to discuss. Why had Shelby, whose staff had had many discussions with Dodd’s staff in crafting the parts of the bill, not offered any Republican amendments? Because he had been ordered by McConnell not to cooperate. 5. One of the grotesquer things that happens in Congress is that members try to protect or expand their turf. The main reason they do this is because there is a huge financial incentive. One example is Pelosi increasing the number of Democrats on a particular Committee because serving on this Committee would mean they would get campaign contributions from Wall Street. Another example is Senator Blanche Lincoln wanting to use Dodd-Frank to make the CFTC (Commodity Futures Trading Commission) the regulator of all derivatives, not just the traditional commodities-based ones. Lincoln was head of the Agriculture Committee, which oversaw the CFTC. If she could move the complex financial derivatives outside of the SEC, which was overseen by the Banking Committee, she and her Ag members would be the beneficiaries of Wall Street donations rather than Banking Committee members. (Lincoln was given a lot of love and attention from Dodd throughout the process because she was vulnerable in both a primary in Arkansas, and in the general election. Keeping a Democrat in that Senate seat was just as important as anything actually related to derivatives. She lost her 2010 general election and became a.....wait for it.....lobbyist.) Now, an aside. Kaiser calls a critically important house staffer, Joanne Roslanowick, “wide-beamed.” Does this mean what I think it does? She has a big, fat ass? Does it mean something else to him? I noticed that he repeatedly called certain women “handsome,” which I took as a synonym for “not pretty.” Roslanowick was handsome, as were Elizabeth Warren and Maxine Waters. A critical staffer named Amy Friend is svelte and attractive. Carolyn Maloney is “vain, sometimes aggressive, and not particularly bright.” Are any men handsome? Yes: Edward Yingling, the president of the American Bankers Association (bigtime lobbyist), and Bob Corker, freshman senator of Tennessee. New senator Scott Brown transcends handsome and is “good-looking.” Herewith some items I found interesting, or were news to me. • The Senate version of the TARP bill was “sweetened with benefits for a few special interests favored by some House Republicans.” I’d like to know what those benefits were, but Kaiser doesn’t say; he also doesn’t say if they survived into the final law. • Frank tried to convince Pelosi to shrink the large and unwieldy Financial Services Committee, but she added Democrats instead because it was known as a “money committee,” meaning its members could more easily raise campaign cash from the financial sector. • You would think during a time of crisis, the onset of the Great Recession, committee members would feel it necessary to attend a hearing at which Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke were testifying. The enormous AIG bonuses had just been handed out. Fewer than 10 of the 71 members of the Financial Services Committee were experts on financial matters and Wall Street, and most of these did not even attend the hearing. Why not? • Kaiser makes the very good point that in 2007-08, when Dodd could have possibly done something to prevent the crash, along the lines of passing legislation, as head of the Senate Banking Committee, he was instead in Iowa engaged in a futile run for the presidency. Dodd never polled at more than one or two percent, so what was the point? This also ended up damaging him badly in his home state of Connecticut, where he plummeted in the polls. This was why he decided to retire in 2010. Later in the book Kaiser quotes Dodd making a similar point about Richard Shelby: Shelby had been chairman of the Banking Committee from 2003 to 2007, so he could have tried to rein in Wall Street or the mortgage companies too, and he had a lot more time to accomplish it. But Shelby never made the attempt. • Kaiser seems to not have much respect for Pelosi. He notes that according to Frank and other colleagues, whatever her enthusiasms were, they often derived from the last person she talked to. • The Senate Agriculture Committee staff pushed hard to increase the importance of the CFTC, expanding its regulation of financial products that normally came under the jurisdiction of the SEC, which was under the aegis of the Banking Committee. This is the ugly, tacky side of committee turf wars; the whole point is to get more campaign contributions for members of your committee. Unscrupulous Ag staffers (working under Blanche Lincoln) made last second changes to parts of the Senate draft which not only were not written properly, but they introduced new changes that had never been discussed by Dodd and his staffers. This was literally so last second that there was not time to change the changes and produce a new, clean draft. One of these Ag staffers, Patrick McCarty, made more unauthorized changes, again literally at the last second, when the Senate and House bills were being reconciled in conference committee. In my opinion this is borderline treasonous; McCarty was a lawyer and had extensive experience with finance and derivatives, so he was able to act for the derivatives-illiterate Blanche Lincoln. Not only were McCarty’s changes unauthorized by anyone beyond Lincoln, they severely altered the intent of the law (they would have “cratered the housing market,” according to one Treasury official) and were sloppy and error-filled. The Treasury official made edits and wrote out by hand new language to repair at least some of the damage; there was no time to be more thorough. • The Senate Banking Committee staff felt that Maria Cantwell didn’t understand her own amendment, which related to derivatives. Cantwell quoted a New York Times editorial which called her amendment “must-pass,” which suggested to the committee that the newspaper also did not understand the amendment or the derivatives market. The editorial is here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/19/opi...

  2. 5 out of 5

    Bob Price

    After reading Robert Kaiser's poorly named Act of Cognress, I have learned two things: (1) Objective journalism is dead...a fact I already knew but it was reiterated again for me here. (2) America needs a reboot. I should note here that my review of this book is a review of the book and not about the legislation whose construction it presents. The subtitle of the book How America's Essential Institution Works, and How it Doesn't might suggest that this is a book about politics, specifically how Con After reading Robert Kaiser's poorly named Act of Cognress, I have learned two things: (1) Objective journalism is dead...a fact I already knew but it was reiterated again for me here. (2) America needs a reboot. I should note here that my review of this book is a review of the book and not about the legislation whose construction it presents. The subtitle of the book How America's Essential Institution Works, and How it Doesn't might suggest that this is a book about politics, specifically how Congress works. Even in the conclusion to the book, Kaiser writes that this is what he intended. The method he chooses is to use the Frank-Dodd Act and show how it became law, thus illuminating how Congress works. However, that is not what he does. Instead he creates a narrative with a plot: good guys and bad guys and a victory celebration. The good guys are Dodd and Frank and Kaiser can't get enough of praising them. Sentences include (paraphrased, of course): "Frank, in his brilliance, was able to counter the stupid Republican arguments by showing them the prowess of his intellect." Kaiser is not able to get out of his narrative long enough to truly examine both sides of the argument. Granted the Republicans may have been stupid, but he just assumes it and never examines why. His victory lap in which Dodd Frank is passed never truly considers the numerous problems about implementing the bill. To this day, the problems out weigh the merits of the bill and it is not fully implemented. Kaiser's purported purpose is to explore how Congress works. But his real purpose is in glorifying Barney Frank and Chris Dodd and the Frank-Dodd act. He claims that this bill single-handedly saved the country....or even Western Civilization. His praise knows no end and there is not an objective moment in the book. Kaiser's writing style is very lucid and very clear. He knows the key players in the process and is able to write clearly about a complicated situation. His conclusion at the end of the book is that Congress is still broken. And it looks like it will always be broken until it votes the way Kaiser wants it to. It should frighten us however that this if this is the best and brightest our country can produce, we are in deep trouble. The US Congress has never been perfect (in the 19th century a congressman was caned on the floor) and it never will be. In sum, Kaiser's book is more about Kaiser's political bent than it is about political science. If that's what you want, than this is your book. But if you want to know about the legislative process, you are better off watching the School House Rocks video, "How a Bill Becomes a Law". This book is recommended for people interested in politics. Grade: C

  3. 4 out of 5

    Doug Cornelius

    Robert Kaiser was granted rare access to the action behind the scenes of the creation of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Act of Congress is an enjoyable study of the enactment of that law, used as tool to explore how Congress works, and largely how it it doesn't work. Kaiser was already an associate editor and senior correspondent with the Washington Post and had just finished a book on lobbying and money in Washington. He proposed to Congressman Frank that Kaiser Robert Kaiser was granted rare access to the action behind the scenes of the creation of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Act of Congress is an enjoyable study of the enactment of that law, used as tool to explore how Congress works, and largely how it it doesn't work. Kaiser was already an associate editor and senior correspondent with the Washington Post and had just finished a book on lobbying and money in Washington. He proposed to Congressman Frank that Kaiser become the historian of the congressional response to the Great Crash of 2008. Frank was planning a big legislative changes to the financial services industry and the new president shared this goal. Senator Chris Dodd and Representative Barney Frank let Kaiser talk on the record with staff. Act of Congress lives by the famous remark "Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made." The book's goal is to be both entertaining and educational as it sneaks behind the curtain to watch the sausage production. "Of the 535 members of the House and Senate, those who have a sophisticated understanding of the financial markets and their regulation could probably fit on the twenty-five man roster of a Major League Baseball team." Kaiser lets the stupidity of some Congress make it to the pages. He lets their public statements stand for themselves, although he tosses the phrase "intellectual lightweight" at a few. I sense he had a lot of personal perspective some of the congressmen that did not make it to the pages. I found the book to be well-written and interesting. I suspect the interesting part may be governed more by my interest in the Dodd-Frank Act. It's an enormous piece of legislation with profound impact on the financial services industry. In places it is poorly written and in others it's full of exemptive holes. This books will enlighten you to some of the compromises that were made to get the law enacted. I suspect those who have that interest may be limited. If you have made it this far, perhaps you share that interest. In which case you should add Act of Congress  to your reading list.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    For a book about the passage of a bill through Congress, this was pretty good. It also makes you miss Democratic control of both houses.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Kenneth

    It should be noted that I am an unusual reviewer for this book. I have been deeply involved in financial services, specifically in the most heavily regulated of the securities markets as well as in the most esoteric sections of the derivatives markets. Additionally, I advised the SEC (pro-bono) on the rule-making process for Title VII, the section on derivatives. Prior to that I read the Dodd-Frank Act in every version, house and senate that was published in the Congressional Record as it made i It should be noted that I am an unusual reviewer for this book. I have been deeply involved in financial services, specifically in the most heavily regulated of the securities markets as well as in the most esoteric sections of the derivatives markets. Additionally, I advised the SEC (pro-bono) on the rule-making process for Title VII, the section on derivatives. Prior to that I read the Dodd-Frank Act in every version, house and senate that was published in the Congressional Record as it made its way through Congress. So I knew a LOT of this story from the perspective of an informed outsider, and as someone who is significantly more knowledgeable about the substance of the bill than, it turns out, many of its authors and their staffs. The first thing to remember is that this book was written by a journalist for the Washington Post so one has to remember the partisan slant, which for a Republican like myself, it totally obvious. The Democrats throughout are portrayed as noble public servants, seeking compromise and aiming only for the public good, never for their own advantage. Republicans on the other hand are partisan ideologues generally in the pockets of the big banks and credit card companies always looking to scuttle negotiations or seeking partisan advantage. This stood out most when significant ink is devoted to the flip-flopping of Scott Brown with regard to his agreement to vote for cloture but the decision by Senate Democrats, once they discovered that "compromise" with the Republicans would involve substantive rather than cosmetic adjustments, decided to eliminate a bi-partisan mark-up procedure altogether thus double-crossing the Republicans who had gone against their leadership to try to compromise gets two sentences: "I think we had better skip the markup." "Yes." With no discussion about how this betrayal was responsible for the obstruction that followed. The same goes for the debate over pre-emption which was very clearly an attempt to help state and local Democratic Machines which controlled the main financial centers of New York and Chicago to raise tens of millions by transferring into Democratic strongholds responsibility for regulating the financial sector. The partisan aspect of this is never discussed, it's just shown as a way to innocently get the regulation closer to "the people." This was of course halted by the contribution of tens of millions to Democrats at the Federal level by the banks involved which is a matter of public record. The partisanship of the author aside, it is an excellent book and a really solid look into the decisions that shaped the bill. As I followed it through Congress, so many things about it seemed to make no sense. Some of it seemed to be driven by the fact that the authors and the staff did not really understand what they were doing, this was clear enough, but some of it seemed to make no sense at all. The political decisions that governed the bill drove so much of it and the book very clearly illustrates the political currents along which the bill sailed. The story of the Lincoln Amendment, one of the aspects of the bill that was difficult to understand from the outside, is outstanding and illustrative. There are shortcomings in the bill as well. The role of the staff is highlighted but not explained and the role of the lobbyists is not given nearly enough attention. The author's bias here is also notable as he very often fails to identify special interests which were deeply involved in battling over various points in the bill (I know about them because I was communicating with them) and at one point claims that there was no constituency arguing for the movement of derivatives onto exchanges (the market makers and the exchanges were HUGE and partially successful in this effort.) Given that I am soon to be a staff member, it was interesting to see how important staff was but I would have preferred more detail though I can see how this might have derailed the narrative. Frankly, the politics are more interesting than the substance. The main thing I took away from this was that much of the regulation was written as a PR exercise by people who knew little and cared less about what the actual effects of the bill would be. I know that it has cost the dealers a fortune to comply with the laws but that its objectives were actually more attained by Basel III changes to the costs of capital and reductions in leverage than to the issues raised in Dodd-Frank and as we can see with the de-banking of the lower middle and working class in the wake of the bill resulting in the transmutation of predatory lending into "fintech" there have been many adverse consequences. All in all this was an extremely valuable book. I would recommend it.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Frank Stein

    Often frustrating, but just as often fascinating. The author of this book was embedded for almost a year with Rep. Barney Frank and Senator Christopher Dodd as they hammered out the famous or infamous Dodd-Frank Act, 2300 pages, now accompanied by almost 10,000 pages and counting of regulations, that was supposed to cure the nation of the financial ills manifest in the 2008 crash and to re-regulate the financial sector. The author, like almost every contemporary journalist covering Washington, co Often frustrating, but just as often fascinating. The author of this book was embedded for almost a year with Rep. Barney Frank and Senator Christopher Dodd as they hammered out the famous or infamous Dodd-Frank Act, 2300 pages, now accompanied by almost 10,000 pages and counting of regulations, that was supposed to cure the nation of the financial ills manifest in the 2008 crash and to re-regulate the financial sector. The author, like almost every contemporary journalist covering Washington, constantly and continually laments the lack of "bipartisanship" in Congress, and claims this explains much of the supposed "dysfunction" he uncovers. But of course bipartisanship here as elsewhere simply means that the other side disagrees with you, and so, taking his cues from Frank and Dodd, Kaiser can hammer the Republicans for being "partisan" when they disagree on an issue, and then celebrate the Democrats being "principled" when they refuse to compromise on issues important to them. This sort of nonsensical critique, premised on the demonstrably false idea that congresspeople all agree on how to legislate and its only purblind stubbornness that prevents them from doing so, permeates the book. Also and strangely enough for a man who cottons in the opening to his ignorance of financial affairs, and occasionally demonstrates it in the book, similar snap judgments and uninformed editorializing accompany his discussion of every one of the bill's provisions. In any case, the author's positions and arguments do not get in the way of a great story of legislative machinations, at least most of the time. Kaiser does a better job than anyone else I've read of conveying the congressional staff's importance in writing bills. Different staffers, sometimes from opposing sides, often sit together late into the night negotiating positions, only calling their supposed bosses occasionally when they think they may be going out on a limb, often on issues they admit the congressperson doesn't understand. The fact that John Boehner was so worried about a Banking and Committee republican staffer that he asked Spencer Bacchus, the ranking member, to replace him shows how even the leadership understood their power. Kaiser is also great at detailing the real horse trades involved in legislating. The best revelation by far was that the Congressional Black Caucus convinced Frank to hold off on a vote for a month until some provisions were changed to benefit, in their words, the property-owning black middle class. Turns out they had one particular owner in mind. Percy Sutton, former Harlem pol and owner of the Intercity Communications Company (it held radio stations), wanted some loans renegotiated with Goldman Sachs. Dutifully, Frank called Sachs up, and they, understanding they were under the gun of a powerful committee member holding the reins on a new regulation, abated Sutton's loans. Such are modern politics, much of it done with winks and nudges outside of the formal law. Most surprising here, though, is that Frank comes across as an insufferable bastard. The author announces at the beginning that he has been Frank's friend since college and clearly he thinks he paints him in a fair light, but it might be impossible. From Frank's constant preening declartions that he was smarter than anyone else in Congress to his denigrations of everybody, I mean everybody, else (from other Democratic Congressmen to Dodd, to his Republican colleagues, to Obama officials), one gets the impression that Frank simply does not care for anyone else. One quote, which has him responding to a criticism of Congress by saying "The voters are no bargain either," shows just how supercilious he had become. He still may be funny and quippy, but that doesn't seem to excuse how he acts here. So, despite my caveats, I highly recommend this book for those looking for something beyond the typical high-school civics lessons about how a bill becomes a law. I'm sure it will change the way you see any news about the modern Congress.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Andrew McBurney

    Act of Congress is a work that Americans have needed for a long time. At the end, Robert Kaiser notes, “The way this story unfolded did not follow a civics book model of how Congress should work. Instead the plot line reflected the realities of the modern Congress.” I teach government and history, and for as long as I’ve been a teacher, every government textbook has its own version of the necessarily convoluted diagram of How a Bill Becomes Law—you know, the one you might mistake for the gameboar Act of Congress is a work that Americans have needed for a long time. At the end, Robert Kaiser notes, “The way this story unfolded did not follow a civics book model of how Congress should work. Instead the plot line reflected the realities of the modern Congress.” I teach government and history, and for as long as I’ve been a teacher, every government textbook has its own version of the necessarily convoluted diagram of How a Bill Becomes Law—you know, the one you might mistake for the gameboard of Life. They all focus on the formal process (which, incidentally, is described rather exhaustively in a 65-page booklet published by Congress that you can access here: http://thomas.loc.gov/home/lawsmade.t...). The realities of the legislative process are different, and even more complex. Robert Kaiser’s work traces the origins, development, and passage of the Dodd-Frank Act, which was passed in the wake of the Wall Street bank bailouts and Great Recession. Because Kaiser and his assistants had access to most of the key representatives and senators involved in the drafting and crafting of the bill—and most importantly, their staffs!—he can speak much more authoritatively not only on the modern legislative process, but also particularly on what problems it faces. This is unlike some other recent works, such as It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, by Mann and Ornstein, which are less comprehensive but nevertheless eager to offer unworkable solutions. Kaiser doesn’t pull any punches with his assessments of both Democrats and Republicans for their roles in the dysfunctional process, but he is very specific when explaining the basis for his opinions. He treats neither party as an amorphous blob, but rather focuses on individuals involved, including members of both parties’ leaderships. He has praise for both some Democrats and Republicans as well. Kaiser’s assessments offer great insight into the varying kinds of people we elect to Congress nowadays, and the impact individual personalities may have on the functioning of our government. For me, the highlight of the book are the passages where he explains the impact of modern party politics on the legislative process. There are several of these passages that I plan on having my students read. To an extent, as Kaiser himself notes on occasion, politics is still politics; however, in these passages, he details how modern political strategies and tactics of both parties tend to undermine the legislative process to a degree not seen before (at least, not in recent 20th century American history). One thing there is no getting around: the legislative process isn’t exciting. Bismarck said “Men should not know how their laws or sausages are made.” Most people probably have more interest in their sausage than in the legislative processes of their government. However, Kaiser has a very readable style—a good reporter’s style—that helps you keep going. And every so often, he will lead you to a “What the . . . ?” moment that will open your eyes. Those moments alone make this book worth the read.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Tom

    This book is a single case study of how Congress functions -- following the creation through completion of the Dodd-Frank Act. I definitely recommend this book to people who are interested in the real-life nuts and bolts of the legislative process. There are two reasons I think this book deserves immense praise. First, it gives the reader a thorough and serious look into the mechanics of legislative creation. The role of staffers is heavily emphasized and by the end it almost seems like the elect This book is a single case study of how Congress functions -- following the creation through completion of the Dodd-Frank Act. I definitely recommend this book to people who are interested in the real-life nuts and bolts of the legislative process. There are two reasons I think this book deserves immense praise. First, it gives the reader a thorough and serious look into the mechanics of legislative creation. The role of staffers is heavily emphasized and by the end it almost seems like the elected representatives are there to support the staff and not the other way around. The politicians play politics while the staffers do the work. Overall, I'd say the book clearly places the politicians into their proper context with respect to staffers, lobbyists, party leadership, and public opinion. The second reason this book deserves praise is because manages to describe all of this bureaucracy and political maneuvering at just the right level so as to remain interesting. I admit that after reading for a few hours, I would have to set the book down because my head felt like it would explode; there are so many names and interest groups and committees to remember that it can feel a little overwhelming. Still, the drama of the entire event is captured probably as well as it could be. Many thanks to the author for the balance they struck between details and drama. Overall, the book felt fairly non-biased. The author heaps praise upon Frank and Dodd, but at least ventures some criticism of them as well. While Mitch McConnell is definitely (and probably correctly) portrayed as the main villain, many democrats take a lashing as well. If the story in the book is accurate, then I'm glad that Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) lost her Senate seat in 2011 because she -- more likely her staff -- was repeatedly responsible for some seriously underhanded tactics.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jkhickel

    "Act of Congress" is a lot like The Guns of Navarone, without the bullets, and with Republicans and bankers as the Nazis. This book describes the intense battle to pass the Dodd-Frank Act in both houses of Congress. Robert G. Kaiser, the author, makes it clear from the beginning that he is a supporter of government financial interventions such as Dodd-Frank, and thinks that those who opposed them are ignorant Neanderthals. Moreover, the book appears to be rich with Democratic inside sources (prim "Act of Congress" is a lot like The Guns of Navarone, without the bullets, and with Republicans and bankers as the Nazis. This book describes the intense battle to pass the Dodd-Frank Act in both houses of Congress. Robert G. Kaiser, the author, makes it clear from the beginning that he is a supporter of government financial interventions such as Dodd-Frank, and thinks that those who opposed them are ignorant Neanderthals. Moreover, the book appears to be rich with Democratic inside sources (primarily Barney Frank and his staff), and very short on Republican ones. So it's not surprising that this book is all about the heroic liberals who overcame the stupid entrenched conservatives to get Dodd-Frank passed. The book itself is well-researched, and meticulously details the Congressional political process, from House committee to House vote to Senate committee to Senate vote to Conference committee to final votes in both houses, in nearly 400 pages of fairly small type. TRANSLATION: The story is not terribly exciting, and Kaiser makes little effort to breathe any dramatic life into it. In addition, Kaiser doesn't seem to make much of an attempt to draw broad general lessons from this story, aside from a brief wrap-up chapter that bemoans the fact that Congress is now too reactive and divided, which I think most of us figured out 400 pages ago. Still, this may be a useful book for one special group of readers. For political scientists and policy wonks, this is probably one of the best historical references you'll find for how the political process worked in the United States at one particular unique point in time.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Bonnie Samuel

    This book probably needs a new title. I picked it up thinking it was a general narrative on how Congress operates, but it is actually about how the Dodd-Frank Act on financial regulatory reform came to be passed into law. It's definitely eye-opening for anyone who is genuinely interested in how legislation is developed. You'll see that it takes dozens, if not hundreds of people many hours and a lot of negotiating to put together the final draft of a bill. If it weren't so distressing, it would b This book probably needs a new title. I picked it up thinking it was a general narrative on how Congress operates, but it is actually about how the Dodd-Frank Act on financial regulatory reform came to be passed into law. It's definitely eye-opening for anyone who is genuinely interested in how legislation is developed. You'll see that it takes dozens, if not hundreds of people many hours and a lot of negotiating to put together the final draft of a bill. If it weren't so distressing, it would be humorous to learn that the same Republican senator who diligently works alongside his Democratic colleagues to build the legislation will stand in front of the television cameras and claim that the Democrats are building the legislation without Republican input, then go straight into another meeting with the very same Democrats to resume discussion of the bill! Or the constant Republican assertions that the Dodd-Frank Act is a "big bank bail out" bill when no such provision exists in the bill, or that it's a "job killing" bill, but no one knows exactly why or how it would kill jobs. My favorite was the Republican claim that the bill would raise taxes, even though there wasn't a single tax enumerated in the bill. It really shows you how much of politics is posturing and that it's up to the voters to inform themselves rather than relying on the claims of their Congressman. If the mainstream media ignored the soundbites and reported on the actual content of bills as the author of this book does, voters would be so much better off. This book definitely gave me an education.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Roopa

    Incredibly fascinating and informative segments were on lobbying, the actual legwork required to pass major legislation in this day and age, the financial deregulation that led to the financial crisis and a few more things I can't remember right now. However, there were several segments of this book that were practically comatose. Sometimes overwhelming amounts of dry detail about some really trivial things and/or people. I love learning about our legislative process, and I love the swing of reg Incredibly fascinating and informative segments were on lobbying, the actual legwork required to pass major legislation in this day and age, the financial deregulation that led to the financial crisis and a few more things I can't remember right now. However, there were several segments of this book that were practically comatose. Sometimes overwhelming amounts of dry detail about some really trivial things and/or people. I love learning about our legislative process, and I love the swing of regulatory pendulum, but this was a tough read for me. On a side note, does anyone else wonder if poor Alan Greenspan was just being naive? Five years after purchase, it might be time to tackle Age of Turbulence.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Josh

    An engaging read on an incredibly complex law enacted by one of the most dysfunctional & politicized entities in our Land - the bicameral Houses of Congress. In many parts, it read like a novel - driven by characters and intrigue - while maintaining Kaiser's clear journalistic touch to provide background information in a digestible fashion. While this book won't make anyone an expert in financial reform, it will expand one's understanding on the topic, as well as how a bill moves though Congress An engaging read on an incredibly complex law enacted by one of the most dysfunctional & politicized entities in our Land - the bicameral Houses of Congress. In many parts, it read like a novel - driven by characters and intrigue - while maintaining Kaiser's clear journalistic touch to provide background information in a digestible fashion. While this book won't make anyone an expert in financial reform, it will expand one's understanding on the topic, as well as how a bill moves though Congress in fact - not just as theorized in a civics text. Also - props to the highlighting of the important role "staff" plays in the shaping of legislation. Oft overlooked & undervalued - Kaiser brings these individuals right into the forefront as main cast members.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Joseph Muller

    Great look into the actual workings of Congress on a major piece of legislation. I definitely learned some useful things as someone who occasionally needs to understand how legislation is made today. At the same time, it was a difficult read not because the material was that hard, but because it wasn't that interesting and I found it hard to force myself to read it. I finish the book feeling that I have only learned a little about the process for one piece of legislation. Perhaps that was the go Great look into the actual workings of Congress on a major piece of legislation. I definitely learned some useful things as someone who occasionally needs to understand how legislation is made today. At the same time, it was a difficult read not because the material was that hard, but because it wasn't that interesting and I found it hard to force myself to read it. I finish the book feeling that I have only learned a little about the process for one piece of legislation. Perhaps that was the goal, but I feel like I should know more about either how Congress works, or how financial regulations changed, or how politics have overcome policy. You get a taste of all that, but a taste is all.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Emily

    Great book if you're looking to learn more on the 2008 Financial Crisis and how the Legislative Branch functions in general today. I had the opportunity to listen to author Robert Kaiser give a talk this month. Very knowledgeable, a bit cynical, but I guess that's what you could expect from someone who was a Washington Post Senate reporter during some of the best years of bipartisanship. His emphasis on the shift in Congress from policy to politics succinctly sums up what we are seeing today in Great book if you're looking to learn more on the 2008 Financial Crisis and how the Legislative Branch functions in general today. I had the opportunity to listen to author Robert Kaiser give a talk this month. Very knowledgeable, a bit cynical, but I guess that's what you could expect from someone who was a Washington Post Senate reporter during some of the best years of bipartisanship. His emphasis on the shift in Congress from policy to politics succinctly sums up what we are seeing today in America. As a young person, this book brought me an understanding of the way things were before I was born so that I can see just how far we have moved away from that much more functional past.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Quindaro E. C. Frieder

    I read this for a Graduate level Legislative Analysis Class. It is a well organized book. Admittedly it is one sided, but the access given to the author by the authors of the Dodd-Frank Act paints a clear picture of the intricacies of legislating. Having worked on Capitol Hill and covering financial services, I was able to picture the setting where the action happened. If I had known about the book, I would have read it anyway. Great book!

  16. 4 out of 5

    Frank Kelly

    This book would have been a lot better if it were written three or four years ago. Nothing new here, unfortunately, that I haven't read in three or four other books about the financial crisis already. This book would have been a lot better if it were written three or four years ago. Nothing new here, unfortunately, that I haven't read in three or four other books about the financial crisis already.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Melanie

    Congress is interesting. But not as interesting as the author thinks it is.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    Not as much detail on the policy specifics as I had hoped, but a really interesting dive into the process through which Dodd-Frank became law.

  19. 4 out of 5

    PottWab Regional Library

    SM

  20. 4 out of 5

    Clay

    The title of this book is somewhat misleading. The overall message of this book is in fact how U.S. Congress is broken, but that is not the primary subject written about in the book. Throughout its first 22 chapters, Kaiser discusses in detail the process of getting financial regulatory reform bills through the House and Senate, mainly from Frank and Dodd’s perspectives. Kaiser does do a good job of explaining thoroughly what all of the financial terminology means, though. He takes you through e The title of this book is somewhat misleading. The overall message of this book is in fact how U.S. Congress is broken, but that is not the primary subject written about in the book. Throughout its first 22 chapters, Kaiser discusses in detail the process of getting financial regulatory reform bills through the House and Senate, mainly from Frank and Dodd’s perspectives. Kaiser does do a good job of explaining thoroughly what all of the financial terminology means, though. He takes you through every negotiation and vote that takes place with plenty of interesting detail. In the last two chapters is where Kaiser mainly focuses on the failures of Congress and what causes those failures. Overall, I know am much more informed on how both bodies of Congress work and am glad I gave this book a read.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Rui

    Regardless whether politics truly benefits the common people, the process itself is a massive and complicated game. As time goes by, new influence steers voters preference, the game becomes more and more exhausting. This book is a brilliant game manual, built on a historic event but not on the event itself. The politicians are more like game players or pawns. Many serious problems in the system that already surfaced one decade ago fully bloomed during the recent chaos in capital hill. Reading it Regardless whether politics truly benefits the common people, the process itself is a massive and complicated game. As time goes by, new influence steers voters preference, the game becomes more and more exhausting. This book is a brilliant game manual, built on a historic event but not on the event itself. The politicians are more like game players or pawns. Many serious problems in the system that already surfaced one decade ago fully bloomed during the recent chaos in capital hill. Reading it at this moment feels prophetic to its extreme.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Bob G

    An interesting read, especially for the backstory on various participants. However, I’m not entirely certain the author fully grasped how the financial landscape actually works in practice (but then again neither did the lawmakers).

  23. 5 out of 5

    Jack

    Incredibly well-researched book that uses the Dodd-Frank law as a primer for readers who want a glimpse into the legislative process.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Shivanshi

    A very good book for those who want to learn more about the United States government... really opened my eyes to the corruption in our Congress,

  25. 5 out of 5

    Rdp

    I used Kaiser's book in an upper division, university course on Congress. Using the challenge to craft financial reform legislation, Act of Congress is packed full with interesting and essential information on the legislative body, as well as interesting profiles of the people responsible for designing and debating important laws. One of the challenges of teaching and learning about Congress is that it does not inspire people. Kaiser rightly hits on some of the key themes of Congress... fear of I used Kaiser's book in an upper division, university course on Congress. Using the challenge to craft financial reform legislation, Act of Congress is packed full with interesting and essential information on the legislative body, as well as interesting profiles of the people responsible for designing and debating important laws. One of the challenges of teaching and learning about Congress is that it does not inspire people. Kaiser rightly hits on some of the key themes of Congress... fear of blame or blame avoidance and reelection and the search for campaign funds all are key motivators. Policy and writing good laws does not consume the average congressperson. Further, one of the fascinating points of the book is that expert legislation is largely crafted by staff members and often times lobbyists from interested industries; most members of Congress do not have the expertise or knowledge to be the progenitors or sharp-eyed critics of legislation. And finally, the polarization and playing politics of the day hinders and hurts our system with the symbolism of politics trumping the reality of need and quality of legislation.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Dominic

    An insight into the process of passing a major piece of legislation, but at times as dense as the bill whose genesis it is describing. There are heroes and villains from both political parties in this book, although the Democrats generally come off better. What is remarkable is the power of the staffers who work for the members of congress. So few of the members understood the bill that their (generally more experienced) staffers were the ones wring the bill and dictating their bosses policies. A An insight into the process of passing a major piece of legislation, but at times as dense as the bill whose genesis it is describing. There are heroes and villains from both political parties in this book, although the Democrats generally come off better. What is remarkable is the power of the staffers who work for the members of congress. So few of the members understood the bill that their (generally more experienced) staffers were the ones wring the bill and dictating their bosses policies. As the book shows, this doesn't always have the best consequences. Kaiser ends with a discussion of the partisan gridlock in congress, and a relatively fair distribution of the blame between parties, but little in the way of solutions. In fact, the main takeaway from the book is that without the perfect storm of Dodd and Franks' political geniuses, and some well timed financial scandals, Congress would have achieved nothing at all.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Rick

    I find this was a book that comes up short because it tells more of a clinical story rather than offer insights which aren't obvious. I will give Robert Kaiser credit for his attempt to present how congress does and does not work but his choice to go in depth on one bill really gives us the type of dull and uninspired coverage of Congress that is pervasive throughout the media. I find it unsurprising that Kaiser is quite taken with the respective committee heads he deals with. After all he is de I find this was a book that comes up short because it tells more of a clinical story rather than offer insights which aren't obvious. I will give Robert Kaiser credit for his attempt to present how congress does and does not work but his choice to go in depth on one bill really gives us the type of dull and uninspired coverage of Congress that is pervasive throughout the media. I find it unsurprising that Kaiser is quite taken with the respective committee heads he deals with. After all he is dealing with politicians. I would have preferred him to follow several bills so we can see how the process works on all types of legislation. I would have liked to see some information on earmarks but that is totally lacking. What we get here is a micro view on an enterprise that should of could have been wider. Not worth the hype!

  28. 5 out of 5

    Jeffrey Blake

    Eye-opening look at Congress through the eyes of 50 year veteran Washington Post reporter Robert Kaiser. Kaiser uses the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill as the vehicle for highlighting how our most essential democratic institution works, or as the subtitle implies, often doesn't; due in part to pernicious partisanship, endless fundraising, vast special interests, and big money lobbyists. Must read for those who wish to understand how things really get done in Washington today, and more Eye-opening look at Congress through the eyes of 50 year veteran Washington Post reporter Robert Kaiser. Kaiser uses the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill as the vehicle for highlighting how our most essential democratic institution works, or as the subtitle implies, often doesn't; due in part to pernicious partisanship, endless fundraising, vast special interests, and big money lobbyists. Must read for those who wish to understand how things really get done in Washington today, and more importantly what needs to change to make our system more responsive to it's ultimate constituency. Highly recommend.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Tobias

    A slog at times, but still a compelling look at how, as Kaiser's subtitle suggests, Congress works and doesn't work. It's hard to think of a book that has shown the extent to which Washington, DC is governed by anonymous staffers who do the legwork in the legislative and executive branches. It's possible that Kaiser is too partial to Dodd and Frank, who were his main sources on the process of drafting Dodd-Frank, but I still think it's a) a revealing look into Congress and b) a honest account of A slog at times, but still a compelling look at how, as Kaiser's subtitle suggests, Congress works and doesn't work. It's hard to think of a book that has shown the extent to which Washington, DC is governed by anonymous staffers who do the legwork in the legislative and executive branches. It's possible that Kaiser is too partial to Dodd and Frank, who were his main sources on the process of drafting Dodd-Frank, but I still think it's a) a revealing look into Congress and b) a honest account of how congressional Republicans have subverted institutional norms (with the occasional assist from congressional Democrats).

  30. 4 out of 5

    Don

    Almost any book about the workings of congress is going to bring out the sausage analogy. This one does, too, and it's well-deserved. It's hard to believe someone would be interested in this book unless they're part of the financial industry. There's not much salacious in here. We see a lot of personality quirks (disorders?) that we knew guys like Frank and Shelby had. But mostly we see hard-working people, both elected and staff--trying to either make or break a major piece of legislation. Well Almost any book about the workings of congress is going to bring out the sausage analogy. This one does, too, and it's well-deserved. It's hard to believe someone would be interested in this book unless they're part of the financial industry. There's not much salacious in here. We see a lot of personality quirks (disorders?) that we knew guys like Frank and Shelby had. But mostly we see hard-working people, both elected and staff--trying to either make or break a major piece of legislation. Well-reported.

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