By AUDREY FISCHER
"It didn't take long for me to realize that for a single volume it would be best to concentrate on explaining to the average reader how the House evolved from a fragile union of a handful of states in 1789 into the towering edifice for democracy and liberty that it is today … Despite the many mistakes and failings committed over the past two centuries, despite the numerous incidents of mayhem on the floor of the House, despite the poisonous atmosphere generated from time to time among the members, this splendid institution has had notable triumphs in realizing the national objectives as spelled out in the preamble of the Constitution."
— Robert Remini
From the foreword of "The House: The History of the House of Representatives"
Historian Robert Remini is positively ebullient at having completed the monumental task of writing the 200-year history of the U.S. House of Representatives. And he is equally appreciative of those who gave him the opportunity to do so.
"I want to thank Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, who supported Rep. John Larson's legislation," said Remini, who spoke about his accomplishment at a May 9 Library event sponsored by the Library's John W. Kluge Center.
Remini was commissioned by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington to write the first comprehensive narrative history of the House of Representatives for the general reader, as provided by the House Awareness and Preservation Act of 1999 (P.L. 106-99). The Librarian also appointed Remini as the Distinguished Visiting Scholar of American History in the Library's Kluge Center so that he could research and write the book at the Library.
"The Speaker also gave me access to the House chamber," Remini continued. He recalled telling Speaker Hastert that former House Speaker Henry Clay (1777-1852) once said, "You can never understand the House unless you can be there to talk to the people." To that, Hastert replied, "Be it done!" Remini seized the opportunity to sit in on House proceedings and interview members. Even after the completion of his tome, Remini still has unprecedented access to the House chamber.
"I wrote this book to help the American people know better how their system of government works," said Remini. Moreover, Remini wants the American people to understand the monumental accomplishments of the Founders.
"Most people don't understand what these men and women were able to do. As James Madison noted, there were no traditions or paths to follow. They were surrounded by oceans of monarchies but they set out to create a republic that could be strong and remain independent."
As Remini explained, they decided upon a "unique experiment" — to elect a president but with severely restricted powers.
"They believed the government should start with the people," said Remini, who explained that the people would elect officials to represent them in Congress. The number of representatives per state would be based on population. To allay the concerns of smaller states, the Senate would be created to guarantee each state two votes. The Constitution would make the president the commander-in-chief of the armed forces but would require congressional approval to declare war.
"Having dealt with royal governors and the king, they wanted to be sure they could control the president," said Remini. "The executive branch was the weaker branch of government. The centerpiece was Congress, to be closest to the people, and none more so than the House, the people's house."
The House has the power of the purse, the right to choose a president if there is no majority and the responsibility to initiate impeachment. "Believe me, that's power!" said Remini.
As for the role of the Supreme Court, Remini said that "the Constitution just said 'there will be one.' But Congress has to run the show."
Remini lamented the fact that members of Congress now spend so much time and money getting reelected. "That's not the way it was supposed to be. In the 18th century, it worked beautifully."
Remini also noted that, today, power has been redistributed to the president, since currently the party in power is the same party as the president. "Congress is no longer the center of government. The president is. The danger comes if there are no checks and balances."
From the knowledge he gained while researching the House history, Remini noted that in times when one party is the overwhelming majority, Congress can accomplish its work. But that is not the case today.
"When the two parties are almost evenly split, it is no wonder that nothing gets done," he said.
Remini speculated that that might be the reason for Congress' low approval rating of 22 percent.
Although Remini told stories of bitter feuds and even physical assaults among legislators during the 19th century, he also spoke of the past as a time that members of the House could work together more amiably.
"Henry Clay was known as 'the great compromiser.' Compromise is what's needed and it's almost impossible to achieve today. But it was like that at one time and it changed, but it can change again," said Remini, on a hopeful note.
"The House began in 1789 with 65 mostly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males. Today it consists of 435 men and women of all races, classes and religions. That evolution is really quite remarkable," he observed.
"The House: The History of the House of Representatives," was published by the Library and Smithsonian Books (an imprint of HarperCollins). The 625-page hardcover book is available for $34.95 in bookstores nationwide and through the Library of Congress Sales Shop, Washington, DC 20540-4985. Credit card orders will be taken at (888) 682-3557. Online orders can be placed at www.loc.gov/shop/.