Journal of Policy History 13.4 (2001) 488-491
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The Baron and His Wonks:
Congressional Fiefdoms and Issue Networks
Dante J. Scala
Julian E. Zelizer.Taxing America. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Pp. xv + 384. $49.95 hardcover, $18.95 paperback.
After months of presidential campaign chatter regarding Social Security, policy historians will find Julian E. Zelizer's Taxing America a bracing tonic. A work both comprehensive and incisive, Taxing America is a study of former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Wilbur Mills's crucial role in casting the fiscal mold for the post-World War II American state. Zelizer's work rightfully places him in the fine company of a small but significant group of scholars in American political development who have heeded Schumpeter's advice in his essay "The Crisis of the Tax State": "The spirit of a people, its cultural level, its social structure, the deeds its policy may prepare--all this and more is written in its fiscal history, stripped of all phrases."
Zelizer's history of policy innovation in Social Security, Medicare, and income taxation is marked by its coherence and continuity--no small feat, given the daunting complexity of his topic. The tightness of his narrative stems in part from its focus on the rise and fall of Mills and the congressional committee he led. House Speaker Sam Rayburn pegged the young Arkansas congressman early as an up-and-comer and placed him on Ways and Means in 1942; Mills chaired the committee from 1958 to 1974. From his commanding post, Mills was the steady hand on the budgetary tiller for a generation--deferred to by congressional colleagues as a matter of course, and quite often by presidents as well. According to Zelizer, Mills is a [End Page 488] large part of the answer to the key question of his book, "How did the American state achieve what it did between 1945 and 1975, despite the nation's anti-statist culture and despite its fragmented political institutions?" (6). These achievements included designing the financing for Social Security and Medicare, as well as promoting tax reform as a means to achieve tax reduction.
To the "young turk" congressional reformers of the early 1970s, the Ways and Means Committee was a corrupt fiefdom led by an aged noble of increasingly erratic behavior, to be held responsible for all sorts of policy misdeeds: "the limits of public welfare, the loophole-ridden tax code, the failure of countercyclical tax policies, the influence of experts in policymaking, and the secretive culture of federal politics" (354). Zelizer, through his painstaking, assiduous scholarship (including analysis of transcripts of the closed-door "Executive Sessions" of Ways and Means, during which committee members gathered with their staffers and invited experts in order to write final legislation), gives the reader a strikingly different portrait of the daily activities of Mills's realm over two decades. Beneath the hard exterior shell of congressional committee power, Zelizer reveals not a fossilized patronage system, but a thriving hive of policy innovation governed by a baron who could both speak the language of technocrats ("I undertook to memorize the Internal Revenue Code," Mills recalled in an interview, "and almost did, I guess" ) and play political hardball with presidents.
Zelizer is at his best in his detailed explanation of the inner workings of Ways and Means policymaking during Mills's tenure. In many ways, Taxing America is a fulfillment of the research agenda set out by Hugh Heclo in his seminal 1978 article, "Issue Networks and the Executive Establishment." Throughout his book, Zelizer seeks to further Heclo's studies of issue networks, or "shared-knowledge groups," by fleshing out the relationship between ideas and institutions--specifically, between the discourse of Mills's tax policy community and the final legislative product. The author portrays Mills as the linchpin for a national issue network on tax policy, the figure who solved the difficulties of translating the ideas of an amorphous shared-knowledge group into concrete legislative action. Indeed, the success of Mills's "policy...