Obstacle Course on Capitol Hill

by Robert Bendiner
McGraw-Hill, 231 pp., $4.95

Three out of four voters, according to the polls, favor federal aid to education. One of the Capital’s largest and best financed lobbies, the National Education Association, spends huge sums every year to push such a program. No major interest group will lose anything by federal aid to education; opposition comes largely from the crackpot Right and orthodox Republican businessmen. Yet Congress has repeatedly refused to provide the schools with more than token support.

Robert Bendiner’s Obstacle Course on Capitol Hill attempts to explain this paradox. In sprightly, if occasionally tasteless, prose Bendiner’s chapters alternately describe the parliamentary machinery of Congress, and the way in which this machinery has disposed of some of the federal aid bills introduced in the past twenty years. It is both a fascinating and illuminating book, and has been justly praised by reviewers. None of the reviews I have seen, however, asks whether Bendiner’s analysis of Congress is correct, and whether his prescription makes sense.

Bendiner’s concluding chapter begins this way:

It is plain that sponsors of Federal aid to the schools have again and again been bilked of their prize solely by the mechanical arrangements of the national legislature. That is to say, they have been beaten not because a majority of the Congress decided, after reasonable thought, that the scheme was contrary to the public good, or for any other such high-sounding reason, but simply because a minority used the arrangements in question to have its own way. As we have seen, a standing committee of the House regularly buried the legislation in the 1940’s, sometimes by a single vote; riders and tricky manoeuvres killed it on the floor throughout the following decade; and since then it has twice been done to death by that peculiar institution, the Committee on Rules [my italics].

The implication is clear: since school aid has been defeated “solely by the mechanical arrangements of Congress,” it can be passed only by changing those mechanical arrangements. Unless or until Congress reforms its archaic way of doing business, and allows a majority to work its will freely, there can be little hope of passing the kind of progressive legislature which the country so clearly needs.

Bendiner is not, of course, alone in holding this view. Senator Joseph Clark has made similar suggestions in his new book The Sapless Branch, and there have been dozens of books and articles by distinguished journalists and scholars in the same vein. Bendiner’s effort to prove the hypothesis by examining a particular case in detail is clearly useful. The evidence he presents, however, is not entirely persuasive.

First, there is a question of fact. Is the machinery of Congress really controlled by a minority? A superficial glance suggests that it is: most of the key committees are chaired by Southerners; choice committee assignments go to Southerners in disproportionate numbers; the chairman of the almost omnipotent House Rules Committee is Howard Smith, a Virginian who owes his seat to the Byrd machine. One must…

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