A thoroughly comprehensive guide to how the federal government works.
The latest book from Arenberg (co-author: Defending the Filibuster, 2014) takes on the ambitious task of providing a clearly written and systematic breakdown of the procedures, goals, and balances of the United States government. The author, a senior fellow in international and public affairs at Brown University, worked for decades in Congress for U.S. Sens. Paul Tsongas, D-Mass., Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine. As a result, he has firsthand knowledge of the many processes that he describes in these pages. In clear, nontechnical prose, he takes his readers through every element of the government, opening with an anatomy of both the Senate and the House of Representatives and the workings of congressional committees and then moving into the mechanics of how legislation originates and makes its way from draft to bill to law. Arenberg smoothly and confidently moves past surface summaries of these concepts, getting into the fine-print details of how committees work; he even attempts to clarify the Byzantine workings of protocol as it unfolds on the Senate floor. In the present political environment, many of Arenberg’s readers will no doubt pay extra attention to the sections on debt ceilings and government shutdowns, not to mention those on presidential fitness and the viability of the 25th Amendment to remove a leader from office.
Over the course of this book, Arenberg steadily maintains a tone of restrained optimism—which feels like an almost defiant move given the present situation inside the Beltway. “The founders had high hopes for Congress,” he writes. “They understood that a strong legislature is fundamental to a healthy democracy.” That hope is reflected in the author’s direct, conversational tone, which clarifies details without oversimplifying them, always tying larger governmental concepts to small, personal applications: “If you spend more than you bring in, you must borrow the difference,” he writes. “If you spend less, you have a surplus and may be able to invest it or save for a child’s education.” Arenberg wisely concludes each chapter with review questions, and he finishes the book with a full glossary, although his cleareyed prose largely makes aids such as these unnecessary. The picture that emerges from this account is at once daunting—how could such a top-heavy, overly complicated system of government ever work?—and subtly encouraging, as in Arenberg’s explanations, it all does seem to make a kind of sense. Charts illustrate the intricate ways that the Founding Fathers and generations of later lawmakers created checks and balances at every level of the federal government, and this book topically underscores the importance of these. On this point, Arenberg quotes James Madison in The Federalist: “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many…may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”
A clear explanation of the workings of the United States government that should be required reading for politically engaged Americans.