How Does My American System Work?
November 22, 2008 10:29 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a good book that will help me learn more about how the American government actually works. Specifically, how lobbyists influence Congress, how House committees work, etc. Now that a new administration (that I'm really happy about) is coming in, I want to really understand what's happening in Washington (or at least how its worked in the past).
posted by minicloud to Law & Government (15 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
There is loads of scholarship on this. If you're looking for 'American Politics for Dummies', I recommend Wikipedia. Otherwise, if you want more academic writing, I can give some recommendations.
posted by youcancallmeal at 11:29 PM on November 22, 2008

Actually, now that I think about it, my American Political Systems text might not be a bad place to start. It's called "The Lanahan Reading in the American Polity" and it's chock full of the leading thinkers in American politics.
posted by youcancallmeal at 11:30 PM on November 22, 2008

Here are some Cliff Notes for the AP Government Exam.

And here's an online AP Government textbook.
posted by billtron at 11:45 PM on November 22, 2008

The stuff above me looks pretty good, but I'm not sure if you have a specific focus on legislative stuff. If you do, Walter J. Oleszek (author of "Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process") is one of the finer scholars on the subject.

As for the presidency, I would have to say "The American Presidency: Origins and Development, 1776-2002" by Sidney M. Milkis and Michael Nelson is your best option.

I don't have any recommends for studying the Supreme Court, but there is such a plethora of books out on that subject, I'm sure it would be easy to find if you were really intrigued.
posted by Franklin76 at 1:52 AM on November 23, 2008

Response by poster: This is a really good start- thanks! And the "Lanahan Reading..." is used on Amazon for 3 cents. I'm going to give it a look.
posted by minicloud at 7:20 AM on November 23, 2008

A More Perfect Constitution by Larry Sabato is ostensibly about ways we might change the Constitution to make government more fair, but in order to get to that point, it provides a great overview of how government actually works, as opposed to how it theoretically works (what we all learned in our high school government classes). I read it in the summer of 2007, and I feel like that was the first time I really got a handle on the way things really work in Washington.

Full disclosure: Though I didn't at the time I bought and read the book, I now coincidentally work for the company that publishes A More Perfect Constitution.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:42 AM on November 23, 2008

While I think textbooks and lectures on American government can teach one a lot, I also believe these things only give learners half of the information needed to understand our system. It is valuable to read what others have mentioned, but I also recommend you read some of the autobiographies of the people who founded the U.S., in terms of governance and social matters. This will not only teach you about today and the years of the past, but also about which things you actually believe in and agree with.

The problem with today's textbooks about American government is that they often only ever give you secondhand knowledge and opinions. I think firsthand accounts are very valuable in understanding how things work, as well as more memorable.

Lobbying will be a difficult subject to study, because it affects the government from so many different sides and has so many positive and negative outcomes historically. With that one, I think you're just best off doing your own research in a lot of ways (i.e., follow the money) and then studying the nature of the industries or groups who lobbied.
posted by metalheart at 9:12 AM on November 23, 2008

Given your glee at the new administration you may already have this covered, but I highly recommend that any American read Obama's "Audacity of Hope". It covers some basics about how HE sees the circus that is our government and how he thinks it should be re-tooled in places. Having read it before the general election campaigns, I feel I had much more insight into how he ran his operation. I think it can shed a lot of light on things we will be seeing in the years to come from his administration. As a law professor, he has given a lot of thought to the particulars of constitutional law, liberalism vs conservatism, and governmental involvement in economics. I think of it as getting it straight from the horse's mouth.
posted by skypieces at 10:59 AM on November 23, 2008

The other big problem with American political textbooks (for dummies or experts) is that it presents the mechanics of how Government works (or is supposed to work), but doesn't really say much about some of what really goes on in the trenches. publishes a number of publications that are primarily aimed at lobbyists and other insiders. Their Congressional Deskbook is in the backpack of every intern on the hill (it's sort of the "Care and feeding of your Member of Congress (MC)", and explains in great detail some of the procedural minutia). The fact that it's actually a pretty good read is nothing short of a miracle, and it's probably the closest thing to a guidebook to the real workings of the Legislative Branch.

They Dare to Speak Out is a little dated (it's pre-Gingrich, but the lobbyist tactics are still widely used today). It's one of the more accurate tell-alls on some of the less savory practices by lobbyists, written in a time when authors weren't expected to present a balanced viewpoint.

Buck Up, Suck Up..., while somewhere between a campaign book and a self-help business text, is not a bad place to see the way-of-thinking that's shared by most of the insiders in American politics -- including the lobbyists. If Carville weren't such a media whore, he'd be a hell of a sharp lobbyist, but he wants the spotlight and that's incompatible.

Also, if you haven't read Howard Zinn's People's History..., you need to. As its name implies, it's a history text, rather than a civics/government one, but there's more than enough crossover.

Now... when the new Congress sits, there's going to be one hell of a health care battle, with frantic lobbying from all sides. One buzz on K street is that if Democrats pass single-payer health reform, that the American voters will reward them for it -- for a generation. Some of them are starting to spin it that way (vote against healthcare reform, or we'll never see another (R) majority). Watch carefully as some MCs vote to put their party's interest in front of their constituency's -- especially during the first session. You'll be treated to the dueling boogeymen of "Socialized Medicine" and "Big Pharma" with a little "Save the Frozen pre-Children" thrown in on the side... through very elaborate manipulation of many forms of media. Watch for it.

Start watching one or more of the Sunday Morning Talk Shows. Meet the Press is available online. So is Face the Nation. These are insiders' shows. It's where the parties float ideas ("trial balloons"), before they get fully refined. They are often boring, dry, and hard to watch, but it will give you a better window into the current workings of politics.

Also start reading more insider media/blogs. National Journal, CQ, The Hotline (and its blog, or lobbyist blog) and The Hill are all on the RSS readers of much of Washington. They're usually better written than Kos, et al. (not that Kos isn't legitimate, and also on all the RSS readers)

Beware, though: "Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made."
posted by toxic at 12:00 PM on November 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

This is a little (OK, very) nuts-and-bolts and nerdy, but for a structural overview, your local library likely has a copy of The United States Government Manual. It breaks down the various branches of the federal government and their respective agencies, committees, and the like.

The other recommendations here are all good in terms of lobbying, congressional committees, etc., so I thought I'd just throw this one out as a good "blueprint" of the federal guv'ment itself.
posted by Rykey at 12:21 PM on November 23, 2008

if Democrats pass single-payer health reform

Not (unfortunately) in the foreseeable future. They talk a lot about universal healthcare, but they mean the private variety (i.e., everyone is covered-- by a private insurance company).

posted by Rykey at 12:27 PM on November 23, 2008

One major way in which the basic-civics view of the government screws up is because it tends to omit or understate the importance of the administrative state, the massive federal bureaucracy that's run more or less by the President. Although Congress makes the law in a formal sense, the administrative state has substantial "rule-making" and other authority that make it almost a shadow legislature. If you want to know how Washington works, the "administrative law" subject area is probably just as important as the mechanics of Congress (of course there is much interaction as well).

Unfortunately I don't know of a good popular book on the subject. There is, however, tons and tons of legal scholarship -- many (most?) of the most important US academic legal minds are admin specialists, including (I think) both Breyer and Scalia on the current Court -- and there are many legal casebooks (the basic form of textbook used in American law schools). I'm using Breyer, Stewart, Sunstein and Vermeule, and it's good, although expensive and maybe not what you're looking for if you haven't been socialized into the legal profession.
posted by grobstein at 12:48 PM on November 23, 2008

How Our Laws Are Made a free pdf. This is a classic work.

Congress for Dummies by David Silverberg

The Complete Idiots Guide to American Goverment by Melanie Fonder and Mary Shaffrey

Oleszek's is the ultimate work to have. When I was a leg staffer, I had it at my desk.
posted by jgirl at 1:04 PM on November 23, 2008

Absolutely, Master of the Senate.

also it's wiki. (Look at the Influence of the Series section.)

*This very, long book is a great read, and was actually assigned reading for a class I took in college called The Congress. All I can say is learn specifically about the Congress and House committees and lobbyists from the MASTER MANIPULATOR/PUPPETMASTER.*

I remember my prof saying that the biographer (Caro) HATES LBJ, and this book is still a page turner.
posted by alice ayres at 7:36 PM on November 23, 2008

The Power Game: How Washington Works (1988) by Hedrick Smith, though 20 years old, is an excellent resource. He also produced a documentary after the 1994 Congressional elections that expanded on his earlier work.

Wastrels of Defense: How Congress Sabotages U.S. Security (2004) by Winslow T. Wheeler explains how Congress behaves as if "money spent on the Department of Defense doesn’t actually count as money".
posted by mlis at 7:36 PM on November 23, 2008

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