ABOUT a year ago I stood - panting slightly after a long climb -
on a narrow outside balcony atop the dome of the United States Capitol in Washington. The day was sunny and the view magnificent. More to the point, this is the only vantage point in Washington from which Pierre L'Enfant's hub-and-spokes design for America's capital city can be seen in its true perspective.
It's useful to be reminded that Congress, and not the white mansion a mile up Pennsylvania Avenue, is the architectural center of the US seat of government. In L'Enfant's mind and, more important, in the minds of the Founding Fathers, Congress was also the institutional center of government.
The agenda-setting and attention-getting powers of the modern presidency (aided by the magnifying lens of the modern White House press corps) tend to overshadow the national legislature in the public's eye. But lobbyists never lose sight of Congress's importance, and presidents do so only at their peril.
A significant publishing event may help refocus attention on Congress and on its legislative counterparts in state capitals. A few weeks ago, Scribner's brought out the ``Encyclopedia of the American Legislative System,'' a three-volume set that covers the lawmaking branch of government from soup (or at least Superfund) to nuts (and other agricultural programs).
In 91 readable essays by historians and political scientists, the encyclopedia describes the evolution of both Congress and state legislatures from the colonial era to the present, and it analyzes every aspect of legislative policymaking, procedures, and relations with the other branches of government.
``Americans in general are not very well informed about their political institutions,'' says Prof. Joel Silbey, a Cornell University historian who was editor in chief of the project. ``For about 15 years scholars have been talking among themselves and in conferences about the need to pull together a lot of the learning about the legislative process that was in scattered books and articles and make it widely accessible. Then a couple of years ago, Scribner's asked if I would oversee such a project.''
Designing the project, recruiting the writers, managing the work flow, and editing the essays ``was like running World War II,'' Dr. Silbey says.
Asked if the project has an underlying thesis or reformist agenda, Silbey says the encyclopedia's only purpose is to ``examine the legislative branch with the current state of our knowledge.'' He notes that a number of writers analyze issues relating to procedural and ethics reform, but not as advocates.
Where an essay seems to come down on one side of a public-policy issue - supporters of term limits won't find much comfort here, for instance - the result is a scholarly judgment based on research, not a personal view, the editor in chief says.
He didn't have to edit out personal opinions, Silbey says, because ``we selected the contributors carefully.'' He adds with a laugh: ``One knows, for example, that right now you wouldn't hire [Clinton aide] George Stephanopoulos to write a disinterested essay about the Resolution Trust Corporation.''
Regarding the low esteem in which the public holds Congress, according to polls, Silbey notes that ``throughout American history, there always has been a degree of antigovernment sentiment. It's part of the American makeup, how we feel about power.'' Even so, he says that many scholars believe ``we are living through a period of unusually bad public perceptions about our institutions of government.''
Does that mean that Congress is performing badly by historical standards? Not necessarily, Silbey says. ``Given the extreme complexity of our current problems, Congress is probably functioning about as well as can be expected.''
At $300 a set, few will buy the encyclopedia for family-room shelves. But for public and school libraries, it will shed valuable light on how Americans make their laws.