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A Capitol Kind of Rivalry : HOUSE AND SENATE by Ross K. Baker (W.W. Norton: $19.95; 210 pp.; 0-393-02706-6)

August 27, 1989|John H. Taylor | Taylor is former President Nixon's chief aide.

"House and Senate" is the closest thing to a readable political science text that you will find these days. As a narrowly drawn study of whether the two houses of the United States Congress are different or similar, it is typical in theme of a genre replete with narrowly drawn studies. Ross K. Baker finds that the House of Representatives and Senate are sometimes similar but mostly different, a conclusion so self-evident to the average reader of the Constitution and the daily newspapers that one must ask why getting there took him 210 pages. But he spices it up with enough insights, asides, and quips that political science undergraduates, destined to be his principal audience, will find it a revelation. Compared to the rest of the literature, it is positively Byronic.

If to make these general criticisms of political science is to question the whole field's raison d'etre, then, as an undergraduate victim of the abysmal science, J'accuse. Many a student has plowed through complicated texts or journal articles only to discover finally what is axiomatic to old pros like John Sasso and Lyn Nofziger: "Most elections hinge on the state of the economy," or "Incumbents will eat their young to be re-elected." Even from the likes of Prof. Baker you can get a windy belaboring of the obvious in some passages, along with chapter titles that sound like rhymes from old Motown songs ("Convergence, Divergence, and Persistence").

Most political practitioners, proud of learning by doing, are as contemptuous of political scientists as composers are of music critics. On the other hand, if we were all instinctual geniuses, we wouldn't need our outstanding system of colleges and universities. And even if a veteran surgeon can point at an artery and say: "Just cut that one, piece of cake," baby docs must still log some book time before slicing and dicing. So too, I suppose, must tomorrow's political science teachers.

Still, expect to have your suspicions confirmed rather than your horizons expanded by "House and Senate." Twenty pages in, Baker quotes Champ Clark, speaker of the House from 1911 to 1919, as saying congressmen liked to become senators for these reasons: "First, the longer term; second, their votes are more important; third, patronage; fourth, participation in treaty-making; fifth, greater social recognition." And that, it turns out, is just about it even nowadays. We also learn that most reporters and editors prefer to cover senators; that senators generally must be lobbied one-on-one rather than in groups; that senators, being fewer, serve on more committees so still tend to specialize less than representatives. And we learn that the late Sen. Frank Church of Idaho was so contemptuous of the lower house that en route home each evening he went out of his way to avoid driving past the House office buildings, which when you think about it was carrying a thing a bit too far.

The non-specialist should not and would not turn to "House and Senate." It is not a survey book on the Congress but a study of Baker's thesis that the difference built into the two houses by the Framers have managed to endure in spite of television and various other modern evils. In a brisk concluding chapter he shows, through an analysis of the 1986 and 1988 drug bills, how the House will respond quickly to the demands of the rabble while the Senate puffs its pipe and takes the ostensibly more responsible long view--"long" as in roughly six election-free years.

If the solons of the upper house indeed envision themselves as more statesmanlike than their House colleagues, an unnamed lobbyist tells Baker the real reason why: "More often than not (senators) don't know what the hell you're talking about. Yeah, you need to talk in concepts--what's good for America--but I don't think that's because they have any deeper feelings for America than the guys in the House. I think it's just because they don't know the details as well. You can't talk to them any other way." The extensive interviews that Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers, conducted with members, reporters, and lobbyists give "House and Senate" far more of these real-world touches than most comparable tomes.

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