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Do members of Congress know what they are doing?

Journalist-author Bob Kaiser says most members of Congress don’t understand the substance of the laws on which they vote.

Robert Kaiser: "It was upsetting to me as a citizen to realize how few members understood the issues they were dealing with."
REUTERS/Larry Downing

In addition to being obsessed by politics and blinded by ideology, the vast majority of members of Congress simply lack a substantive understanding of most of the matters on which they legislate, long-time Washington Post journalist Bob Kaiser said last night on the PBS “NewsHour.”

Kaiser is out with a new book, titled “Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t”” in which he looked deep inside the process that created one of the major pieces of legislation of the early Obama era: the Dodd-Frank law that attempted to put in place some regulatory safeguards against a recurrence of the 2008 meltdown of the financial industry that set off the miserable economy from which we are still slowly recovering.

But as he reported on how that bill became law, Kaiser — a very long-time Washington hand — seems to have been shocked and horrified by how few members of Congress had a fundamental grasp of how Wall Street works so they could intelligently try to fix what had gone wrong.

Here’s a transcript of the first minutes of Kaiser’s exchange last night with “NewsHour”regular Judy Woodruff:  

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JUDY WOODRUFF: And you are very critical of Congress in this book. You write about the principal preoccupation is politics, instead of legislating, that members are skilled at politics, but not at enacting laws. And yet they were able to pass this big piece of legislation.

ROBERT KAISER: Thanks to two very talented chairmen, Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, who really knew how to make the system hum, and they did it.

But it was upsetting to me as a citizen to realize how few members understood the issues they were dealing with. These are, of course, extremely complicated financial matters, how banks work, how they’re regulated, so on. Not everybody can know this, but I — at the end, I concluded that you could fit the number of experts in Congress on financial issues easily onto the roster of a Major League Baseball team. That’s 25 people. I think that is the max.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is what you write about in the book about the passage of the Dodd-Frank law typical of the way Congress works, or was this unusual?

ROBERT KAISER: Well, it’s unusual in recent times because it was a success. Most of the time now, we don’t get anything, right? We get deadlock. But my hope is that this is a real window on the culture of the Congress, which shows lots of things about if — to remain relevant regardless of what the bill is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is it? Clearly, so much of the book you focus on the principal sponsors, former Sen. Chris Dodd, former Rep. Barney Frank. What was it about them that made this happen?

ROBERT KAISER: Well, Barney — any member of the House would tell you Barney was the smartest member of the House. Republicans agreed about that too. He was really sharp. He really mastered most of these issues.

In the beginning, I thought that was the key fact. Ultimately, I realized Dodd’s political skill, his ability to deal creatively with his colleagues, to win the three Republican votes which he did get which were crucial in the end to the success of the enterprise, was just as important, if not more important, than Barney’s brainpower. But they were very complementary, these two talents.

If you want to read, or watch, the whole interview, it’s here.