November 13, 2016
Charles Clapp's classic "The Congressman."
What do members of Congress really do, anyway?
What have they done traditionally? True, staffs are bigger now--but much of life on The Last Plantation is the same as 50 years ago. What values, if any, are shared by those on work in Capitol Hill?
The Brookings Institution first published "The Congressman: His Work as He Sees It" by Charles L. Clapp in 1963 (507 pages, Anchor). Congressional fellow, policy wonk and former Capitol Hill aide, Clapp was one of the first Washington "old hands" to study and write about the way a legislator actually thinks and works--as opposed to "how Congress works" generally--in the American Congress.
It's based on a study of 36 non-senior House members (i.e., relatively new to the job) who varied in philosophy, districts represented, personalities, and even perceived abilities.
Sure, 50 years ago, Congress enjoyed much smaller personal and committee staffs, and arguably considered less complex issues than they do today. America and the world have changed.
But in his book a Clapp pinned down and explained a few important things that have not changed, and not likely to change: the primacy of becoming an "expert" in one or two areas of national concern (usually reflected by committee assignments), the albatross of reelection every two years, sensitivity (even over-sensitivity) by members to discrete constituent communications and requests, and the fact that all of these men and women, regardless of overall intelligence, work ethic and personality, work hard (yes, no question, they all work hard, despite public's understandable animosity toward and need to demonize them) at a gig that would be daunting to anyone and is impossible to master in all respects.
As a friend notes, Congressional membership is "a lot of job." "The Congressman" is worth reading or at least skimming, whether you're a politics junkie or an average voter who wants to learn a bit more about American decision-making. It can still purchased through a number of online outlets and may be even downloadable, if you look around a bit.
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