Wilson's Congressional Government

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Wilson’s classic work, Congressional Government, proves to be one of the most enjoyable reads in political science. While it is time bound in some small aspects its substance is timeless, and therefore correctly deserves the title of being a “classic.” As Wilson points out in the preface to the 15th edition, some of the facts and details have changed over time, but the substance of the work has not.

In the introduction Wilson paints a picture of the United States government that is very critical, if not all together cynical. The “literary theory” of perfect checks and balances is a myth, and the American people live under a constitution that is essentially different than the one that is vigorously worshipped. Referencing the Federalist Papers, the most important check outlined in the constitution is that between the state governments and the federal government. However, in reality this check is actually the least effectual. To illustrate this point Wilson states, “Federal courts can annul state action, but state courts cannot arrest the growth of congressional power,” (p. 24). The strength of congressional power is the backdrop of Wilson’s story. Congress has an “aggressive spirit” while the executive is almost irrelevant and the Supreme Court has no initiative. In order to understand the constitutional system that we live under, we must understand what Congress does.

Wilson spends three chapters discussing Congress, two on the House of Representatives and one on the Senate. His main focus is on the observation that congressional government is committee government. The legislative branch (especially the House) is a conglomerate, not a homogenous body, of committees that basically serve as “little legislatures.” ...

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... he never left Baltimore. While I agree with his overall analysis I cannot help but think there might be pieces of the picture missing. It is a study that makes claims without ever truly observing Congress in person. Additionally, Wilson writes in a time that is very different than today. His critiques on the Senate and the presidency are time-bound. The presidency is very different today than it use to be (this is why we refer to presidents in the last century as modern presidents) and new committees have been formed that make up for some inadequacies observed by Wilson. Despite these short-falls Congressional Government is a true classic that provides insight into both early government in the United States, and modern government in many aspects as well. Anyone who has any interest whatsoever in American politics should read this book.
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