Former House speaker John A. Boehner’s memoir, “On the House,” debuted at the top of the New York Times bestseller list and for good reason. It’s gossipy, edgy, insightful and fun. Boehner tells stories and settles scores — and seems to have a good time doing so.
Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.) has a different kind of book about his time in Congress, more scholarly than gossipy, part memoir and part textbook, both practical and philosophical. It is provocative in ways that Boehner’s is not, offering insights into an institution that doesn’t work as well as it once did.
Price was first elected to the House in 1986. He narrowly lost a reelection bid in the Republican landslide of 1994. He regained his seat two years later and has been there ever since. He serves on the Appropriations Committee, whose members once wielded enormous power. They still have some sway today, but as Price explains, not like the old days and in a much different House than the one that existed when he was first elected.
Price writes as both practitioner and scholar. Before coming to Congress, he taught political science at Yale and Duke universities. He also has a divinity degree. He is a committed Democrat who served as state party chair in North Carolina before running for Congress. He writes as an institutionalist and as a partisan.
Price calls his book, “The Congressional Experience: An Institution Transformed.” First published in 1992, the book’s current edition, now its fourth, carries a cover photo of the Capitol dome with storm clouds in the background, which as Price notes, offers a fitting metaphor for the times.
The book began at the suggestion of a friend. “A political science colleague persuaded me that I should keep a journal and at some point write up what it’s like to get elected and get situated in an institution,” Price said in a recent interview. “And so I reluctantly did that [and] found out that I actually enjoyed it more than I thought I would.”
That was two decades ago. The newest edition took Price two years to write and is a significantly new work, focusing heavily but not exclusively on the years when Barack Obama and Donald Trump were in the Oval Office.
“It has been very tempting writing this in the last two years to just say the major changes are Trumpian,” he said. But Price offers a longer and more contextual analysis of how politics and the institution of Congress have been altered over the past several decades.
“I spent a fair amount of time talking about the march toward centralization and the degree to which polarization is responsible for centralization,” he said. “This is certainly not the same institution in terms of where a member like myself gets a foothold or the kind of projects we undertake. That has really changed a great deal in my time there, and I’m trying to make that understandable.”
The centralization of power began decades ago. Price recalls the history of Democratic leaders and their reform-minded allies seeking to wrest power from Southern committee chairmen. “The idea was not so much to centralize power as to as to remove or reduce the power of these committee barons,” he said.
Over time, as the two parties sorted themselves out ideologically, the centralization of power gathered force. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) consolidated power to the House speaker’s office after the GOP took the chamber’s majority in 1994. When Democrats retook control of the House in the 2006 elections, Price said, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had no intention of going back to a more decentralized style of leadership. Over time, she has proven to be one of the most powerful speakers in history.
Centralization of power has dramatically altered the operations of the House. Price notes that generations of students have used textbooks describing how a bill becomes a law, working its way through the committee process and then to bipartisan amendments on the floor and eventual passage. “That that really isn’t the way most work is done these days,” Price said. “And it’s a function of the polarization and the centralization that … has pretty thoroughly changed the way we do business.”
Legislation by crisis also has consolidated power in the hands of leadership, by necessity, whether during the tediously predictable brinkmanship over government funding, with threats of government shutdowns, or now trying to do business in the middle of a pandemic. “Guess what?” Price said. “The power goes to the top when you’re getting yourself through those things.”
If there is one overlap with Boehner, perhaps by accident more than design, it would be on the topic of the rise of an anti-government Republican Party, which Price sees as terribly damaging to the governing process.
In his book, Price writes that he tells students, “If they wanted to understand our constitutional history, they should read ‘The Federalist,’ but if they really want to understand American politics, they should read the antifederalists.”
He argues that the antifederalist legacy had some positive impacts, among them the Bill of Rights. But extreme anti-government sentiment, he writes, often leads to “a misdiagnosis of whose power we should be concerned about and throwing up ideological obstacles to the practical and judicious use of governmental power.”
The tea party movement that swept Republicans to power in the House in 2010 was a recent manifestation of the antifederalist strain in American politics. The impact has been profound, as a hardcore of anti-government conservatives pushed the GOP farther and farther to the right and whose members of the Freedom Caucus hectored Boehner to the point that he finally gave up the speakership. Under Trump, it all got worse.
Toward the end of his book, Price writes, “My hope for the post-Trump era is first of all, that the end of Trumpism comes quickly and secondly, that it involves the gathering of a broad center-left coalition on the Democratic side, with Republicans regrouping as an authentic center-right conservative party.”
Those words were written before the end of the 2020 election. How does Price see things now that President Biden has been elected and Trump is a former president? “The immediate objective, of course, was achieved, thank goodness,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean Trumpism is going away as the dominant force in the Republican Party.”
He then added, “I just am distressed that the defeat hasn’t led to more of a self-examination and a reorientation of the party. It could yet occur. We’ll see how long Trump can keep the brand and the fervor alive. But so far, not very promising.”
As a result, Price said he is dubious about efforts to find middle ground, given the state of politics and the challenges facing the country. “I think the issues we’re dealing with in the realm of racial justice, the issues surrounding the climate, you know, these are these are really urgent, almost emergency situations,” he said. “And it’s just not going to satisfy anybody, nor is it going to be an adequate response, to simply seek some vague middle ground.”
Price offered a look back at history and an effort to set the current moment into a wider context. “I would not describe the last four years as the historical norm,” he said. “But I do think that we’re for some time to come. We’re going to have we’re going to have serious political divisions in the country. And therefore, there’s going to have to be strong leadership in the Congress to bring anything together.”