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–by Don Kennon


 The U.S. Capitol Historical Society initiates a new feature presenting recently published books on congressional or Capitol history for the attention of our readers. If you have a recommendation for a book to add to the Capitol Bookshelf, please contact us (see end of this post).

William McKay and Charles W. Johnson, Parliament and Congress: Representation and Scrutiny in the Twenty-First Century (Oxford University Press, 2010), 596 pp., hardcover, $160.

The authors of Parliament and Congress are uniquely qualified to have written the most up-to-date comparative study of the constitutional backgrounds and procedural histories of the legislative bodies of the United Kingdom and the United States. William McKay served in the Department of the Clerk of the House of Commons 1962-1994, clerk Assistant of the House of Commons, 1994-1997, Clerk of the House and Chief Executive of the House Service, 1998-2002, and Interim-Clerk designate to the Scottish Assembly 1979. Since 2006 he has served as an observer at the Council of the Law Society of Scotland. Charles W. Johnson is a consultant to the Parliamentarian of the U.S. House of Representatives. He has served as Assistant Parliamentarian to the U.S. House of Representatives 1964-1974, Deputy Parliamentarian 1975-1994, and Parliamentarian 1994-2004.

The book is the successor to a book of the same title first published in 1972 by Kenneth Bradshaw and David Pring. Rather than an updating of Bradshaw and Pring, Mackay and Johnson have produced “an entirely new view of the two legislatures, sometimes more optimistic than theirs, sometimes not.” The strengths of this new work are many. In the first two chapters, it provides a basic summary of the political theory behind the two systems of government—parliamentary and congressional. Chapters three and four, “The Four Houses” and “Representatives, Members, Lords, and Senators,” contain indispensable information on the structure and history of each respective legislative body. The fifth chapter, “Procedural Basics,” explains the rules of procedure in legislative debate—essential reading for the avid C-SPAN viewer.

“The Power of the Purse,” the sixth chapter, explicates one of the sharpest differences between the two systems. The House of Commons can only vote on money bills introduced by the Crown, while in the United States the House of Representatives controls the power of the purse by originating revenue measures. Subsequent chapters on “Scrutiny and Oversight,” “Committees,” “Legislation,” Privilege and Contempt,” and “Ethics and Standards,” examine other similarities and differences in the two systems, with particular attention to the developments of the last forty years. Given recent national and international fiscal and governance problems, this chapter, one of many which will be revisited by a preface to a new edition in 2012, may draw particular attention if only to demonstrate the complexity and failures which have attended the matter in the past several years. The book presented the authors a unique opportunity to be critically judgmental in their evaluations of their institutions, an opportunity not earlier presented during their 40-year nonpartisan careers.

In the preface, the authors provide a word of caution. “Change is equally certain in the future, both in Washington and Westminster, and the direction of change is always unpredictable. An account such as this can be only a snapshot.” It is a snapshot, however, that is notable and praiseworthy for its clarity and honesty. For American readers, it may also be chastening if not disturbing in its conclusions. Americans, many of whom may only have had a cursory exposure to British Parliamentary procedure, may be surprised by reading in the brief two-page concluding chapter of Parliament and Congress that the changes in congressional procedure in recent years “symbolize the diminution of traditions of transparency, fairness, and deliberative capacity which have characterized the House of Representatives for most of its legislative history,” whereas in Parliament, “[t]here remains in the Commons an unspoken sense that political warfare has its limits, that the winner ought not to take all.”

No doubt because of the technical nature of the book, Oxford University Press has priced and marketed it as a textbook/reference work. The price tag alone unfortunately will make it difficult for most readers to purchase and even for many local libraries to add it to their collections. If you can’t find the book at your local library, make a recommendation that the library add it to their acquisitions list.

There is an interesting transcript of an interview with Mr. Mackay and Mr. Johnson by Brian Lamb on C-SPAN. One particularly interesting part of the discussion is the two men’s observations on the impact of televised coverage of the proceedings in Congress and Parliament.

Send us your recommendations for books to add to the Capitol Bookshelf. Books should be nonfiction, pertain to the history of the Capitol or Congress, and have been published within the last 2 years. Fill out the form below or leave a note in the comments.