November 1, 2013

Inside Dodd-Frank and Why Congress Doesn’t Work; Inside Henry Ford and Why He Did

Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t

by Robert G. Kaiser, Knopf, 2013

Do you want to know what’s wrong with Congress and why it can’t get anything done? Read this fascinating, fluidly written, no-holds-barred dissection of one of the nation’s founding institutions.

Robert G. Kaiser, a longtime Washington Post reporter, had been trying to understand Congress his entire career. The process leading to the passage of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act gives him the opportunity to chart the 22-month course of a historic piece of recent legislation and simultaneously explain how things get done in Washington, D.C.—or more often, how they do not. Early on, he got former Democratic U.S. Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts and former Democratic U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut to agree to cooperate with the reporting. The result is a remarkable inside look at how Congress functions in the 21st century, and it’s far different from the civics we learned in school.

Kaiser takes no prisoners. He describes U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York as “vain, sometimes aggressive and not particularly bright.” He explains that most congressional work is done by staff, and even those who serve on influential committees have little to no grasp of the issues, let alone their complexities. He shows members repeatedly asking ill-informed questions whose main purpose is to get them on the news. He accuses them of bloviating, fecklessness and being motivated by fear and blame-avoidance. And he argues that when they occupy a safe seat or don’t have to run for re-election anytime soon, they do almost nothing. “Congress’s default speed is slow,” Kaiser writes.

All that changed with the 2008 financial crisis. That September, a remarkable hour-and-a-half meeting in former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s conference room included members of congressional leadership, including John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, as well as former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke. Chris Cox, then chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, told the group, “This is a save-your-country moment.” For once, they all agreed. They promised to leave the room and prepare legislation for the president’s signature immediately. The result was the Troubled Asset Relief Program (famously known as TARP), beginning with the bailouts of the country’s largest financial firms.

The bipartisan salvation of the country fell apart almost instantly. But an outraged public and terrified lawmakers gave Dodd and Frank the opportunity to pass truly significant legislation. It didn’t hurt that Dodd and Frank, both of whom had been in Congress for decades, were liked and respected.

As he follows the bill through a process that makes the word “Byzantine” seem woefully inadequate, Kaiser explains complex financial instruments, why South Dakota dominated the interests of the banking industry, the role of the media and lobbyists, what a “mark-up period” is, and how hallway political horse trading actually happens. He also shows how true statesmen can still manage to lead the country on occasion—but apparently only when their backs are against the wall. He also explains why it’s a good idea to watch C-SPAN. (Congressional hearings reveal how our legislators think, and on C-SPAN, they do it out loud and on camera.)

In the end, the book is optimistic without being hopeful. It concludes that only true catastrophe pushes Congress, which Kaiser calls the “clumsiest, least efficient American institution,” into action. Our Founding Fathers assumed that civically minded individuals like them would want to run for Congress. They were wrong.


I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford

 by Richard Snow, Scribner, 2013.

The ironies of Henry Ford’s life run fast and thick through this enjoyable biography. Historian Richard Snow has authored six books, including the excellent A Measureless Peril about the World War II battle for the Atlantic. Here, Snow covers the first 30 years of Ford’s life in fewer than 40 pages and gets to the real reason anyone would read this book. By avoiding speculation—the antithesis of good history—and embracing an economy of language, the author, like any skilled biographer, lets a good story tell itself.

Ford grew up on a farm and hated everything about it. But he eventually spent millions to create a picture-perfect replica of the past by buying and relocating houses, stores and workshops to Greenfield Village outside Dearborn, Michigan. He considered all wars a waste of resources but made millions building military equipment, including the B-24 Liberator bomber. He was a tireless self-promoter but consistently isolated himself, becoming less and less approachable with age. He assembled brilliant teams and was a master at motivating them, but he always had a bulldog in the form of some mean-spirited taskmaster as a business manager and all-purpose bad cop. He loved a good joke, even about his beloved Model T, but was a cruel practical joker. He shied away from face-to-face arguments but loved a good fight.

Most famously, he employed the most diverse workforce of his time—Ford was the largest employer of African-Americans in 1917—but was a virulent anti-Semite who holds the reprehensible distinction of being the only American mentioned in Mein Kampf. He was a loving husband who maintained a 30-year relationship with another woman, and he was a doting father who, many believe, hounded his only son to death. He was, in the words of his longtime business partner James Couzens, “not one man, but two.”

Such conflicts are what any novelist would want in a compelling main character. It is Snow’s gift to accept the man’s contradictions rather than fumbling for psychological motivation. He lets Ford’s actions speak for themselves. While Ford did not invent the automobile, earlier inventors failed to achieve his fame and success. Ford’s other idea was what truly invented the modern age—mass production.

Snow’s concision enables him to dispatch the mechanical details of each invention in a paragraph or two while leaving out nothing important. He covers the genesis of the assembly-line idea—and the early experiments with it—with similar speed. Over and over, the book skips from vision to prototype to fully formed product to consequences in a matter of pages. David Nasaw’s biography of Andrew Carnegie (“Shelf Life,” July/August 2012) runs almost 900 pages; Snow’s biography of a much more remarkable man amounts to less than half of that.

The modern age was built on a simple idea. As Ford wrote, “A man must not be hurried in his work—he must have every second necessary but not a single unnecessary second.” The fact that the workers hated conditions on the line, that years afterward working conditions were so bad at the Rouge River Ford Plant that even Ford admitted it was “no fun,” that the people who helped make him successful eventually couldn’t stand working for him, made not even a dent in his self-assurance. Geniuses are often bastards in their personal lives. They are probably no fun to be around, but in the hands of a writer like Snow, they certainly make for good reading.