In the third volume in the Fundamentals of American Government series, political writer Spieler (co-author: Selecting a President, 2012) takes us on a well-organized tour of the U.S. House of Representatives and introduces the institution's inner workings and history.
The author throws into stark relief the shallowness of much news reporting about the blockages caused by bipartisanship in the House. Spieler helps enrich understanding of national-level policy debates in two ways. First, he shows the degree to which the functioning of the House is under tight control of the majority party through the speaker and the Rules Committee. Second, he draws out comparisons and differences with the Senate, where rules and procedures—such as the filibuster and supermajority vote thresholds—protect the minority. The author also provides a blow-by-blow account of the political combat and legislative maneuvering that secured the passage of President Barack Obama’s health care plan, which exemplifies how the House’s structure and rules shape debate and policy outcomes. The speaker of the House, a constitutionally defined function, is “usually” the leader of the majority party. He or she decides the agenda, and that party's control is exercised through the Rules Committee, where—unlike every other House Committee, which “roughly mirrors” the makeup of the full House—the majority party enjoys a 9-4 majority. This committee, writes Spieler, “enables the leadership of the majority party…to tightly control the manner in which legislation is debated, amended, and voted in the chamber.” Every bill presented is accompanied by its own rule. Tracing the evolution of House procedures from the era of segregation, the author shows how the Democratic Study Group worked to reform the institution. With its work completed, the group dissolved. But then came Newt Gingrich, ushering in a new phase of partisanship.
A concise civics handbook that focuses a spotlight on the House's design and where its leadership does not measure up.