Capitol Hill backs quietly away from 'reforms' of 1970s

The wave of internal reform that washed across Capitol Hill in the 1970s is visibly ebbing. Encountering a conservative undertow and disillusioning experiences with some of the changes, a range of onceheralded measures designed to correct past abuses and open up Congress are in the process of being quietly rolled back.

The institutional retrenchment has been strengthened by the recent election of a conservative Republican President and GOP-controlled senate, but also draws support from many congressional Democrats -- including some who formerly championed the reforms.

The refrain frequently heard in the corridors of the new Congress is cogently summed up by one Midwestern Republican: "We have 'over-reformed.'"

Evidence of this legislative reexamination:

* Open meetings. After being painstakingly pried open to public and press under rules adopted by both houses in 1973 and 1975, doors are once again slamming shut across Capitol Hill.

The tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee held sessions on budget cuts last summer in secret, and new chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois is telling colleagues that he may close more meetings in the future.

The caucus of the House Democratic majority -- ironically, the fountainhead of many of the democratizing reforms of the past decade -- has retreated behind closed doors at most of its recent meetings. And new chairman Gillis W. Long (D) of Louisiana, hearing no objections from members, plans to step up the practice.

Behind the trend lies a growing feeling among lawmakers that open meetings, instead of helping free them from the influence of entrenched special interests, only make them more vulnerable to politically organized lobbies, single-interest zealots, and public misperceptions.

* On-the-record votes. The parliamentary procedure that has generated more roll-call votes and fewer anonymous voice votes -- one of the earliest "reforms, " enacted by the House in 1970 -- also is getting second thoughts.

A proliferation of politically motivated amendments, charged with emotion out of all proportion to their legislative significance (such as those on abortion or school busing), is spurring moves in both houses to return to the days when it was harder to force recorded votes on such "riders."

* Code of ethics. The rules of ethics, which the Senate and House imposed on their members in 1977, seem about to be relaxed.

The new chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, Malcolm Wallop (R) of Wyoming, is one of only nine senators who voted against the code and is an outspoken critic of what he calls its "diddly little rules."

He hopes to push a package of modifications through his panel by month's end.

His proposals would, among other things, spare senators from making full financial disclosure and instead require only a listing of financial holdings that might pose a conflict of interest. The ban on accepting gifts totaling more than $100 per year would be replaced by mere disclosure of gifts received.

* Internal security panel. A relic of the Communist-hunting era of the 1950s , the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, which was disbanded in 1977, has reappeared.

The subcommittee conducted investigations to ferret out subversives within the government. The controversial unit was resuscitated when Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina became chairman of the parent Judiciary Committee last month.

* Intelligence oversight. The Senate Intelligence Committee, created in 1976 to monitor the nation's intelligence agencies after splashy congressional investigations into their abuses, now is chaired by a persistent critic of such legislative watchdogging who opposed the panel in the first place.

Incoming chairman Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona has installed as his staff director a former deputy director for administration of the Central Intelligence Agency who favors protective legislation pushed by the intelligence community.

* Judgeship vetoes. The hoary old tradition of senators wielding discretionary veto power over presidential appointments of federal judges in their home states is being revived.

Reformed out of existence two years ago when Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts became chairman of the Judiciary Committee, the much-criticized "blue sli p" system is back under his successor, Senator Thurmond.

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