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Book Review: The Senate, Simplified

The U.S. Senate
Senator Tom Daschle and Charles Robbins
Thomas Dunne Books-St. Martin’s Press, $19.99, 208 pages
January 22, 2013

 

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s book, The U.S. Senate, written with political journalist and congressional aide Charles Robbins, sets out to simplify the country’s Upper Chamber, and it does so—perhaps too well in some places. The book is worth a read, but suffers from a number of important omissions.

The book is written for the general reader but with high school seniors or college freshmen in mind. The writing style fulfills this purpose: The prose is quite simple and the tone is generally positive and inviting. The Senator illustrates concepts with well-chosen anecdotes from his own career. The reader is unlikely to get lost among details of arcane parliamentary maneuvers or policy minutiae.

Another strength of the book is the attention the authors pay to partisanship, which is not a “step” or “stage” in the legislative process, but nonetheless influences it at every turn. The Senator recalls a number of times when comity benefited the nation or Senate and also points out the consequences of refusing to legislate. Even when the majority party has sufficient numbers to pass a bill, they are better off working with the minority to build as wide a consensus as possible.

Although the Senator writes favorably about bipartisanship—which is not something to be taken for granted—every so often, the Republican Party is either treated somewhat unfairly. For instance, he takes a quotation from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat’s Democrat, to define the differences between the parties: “Conservatives, he said, believe that ‘there is no necessity for the government to step in’” and solve “new conditions and problems” (15). This definition is simply inaccurate; it is more appropriate to say that conservatives believe it is not fitting for the government to “step in”. Editorial comments are scattered here and there throughout. Such comments are merely annoying, but what truly detracts from the book’s usefulness is partisan omissions. For instance, in treating leadership, the Senator writes about his service as co-chair of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee and Majority Leader election; however, aside from writing the Republicans have whips and a Policy Committee, no meaningful attention is given to them. (But then again, not much space is given to describing leadership functions, apart from Daschle’s involvement in them.) Such oversights, and the occasional partisan comment, are understandable, but they nonetheless undermine the book’s purpose of informing the general public.

The partisan omissions are part of a larger problem of a lack of detail or misplaced emphasis throughout the book. For instance, in describing how a bill becomes a law, there is practically no discussion of where a Senator might get an idea for an initiative. Or, in a chapter on committee chairmanships—a crucial power station in Congress—only 3 of the 11 paragraphs provide substantive information about chairmen. The first four describe the growth of committees, which should have been treated in the previous chapter on the topic. The last four describe healthcare reform efforts: They provide no substantive information about chairmen and read more like a partial criticism and partial defense of President Obama’s handling of that initiative. Similarly, Daschle declines to cover congressional staff adequately. A 13-paragraph chapter on staff has 6 dedicated to pages, 1 to his own time as a staffer, 1 to his intern that suffered during the 2001 anthrax attacks, and only 5 to professional aides. He notes that some staff wield so much power that they are almost like Senators. Five paragraphs are not sufficient to describe the different kinds of staffers and their roles in Congress. Overall, the content is well chosen, but the reader would be better served with a more detailed account of certain features of Senate life.

The deficiencies with the book are not minor, but also do not render The U.S. Senate worthless. The various anecdotes Senator Daschle offers makes it a useful companion for a high school civics textbook, as a tool to illustrate some concepts that might otherwise be lost on readers. High school sophomores, not seniors, would be the most appropriate audience. A slightly more substantial look at the Chamber might be more appropriate for older students, but this could easily introduce younger high schoolers to the body and might even inspire them to serve the Senate.

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