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Advice from retiring insiders on shaping better Congress

By Julia MaloneStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 3, 1982


While their colleagues paced in front of the television election night to see if they still held their jobs, some members of Congress could go to bed early. They had already decided to give up their seats - often to write books, spend more time with their families, or just have more time for themselves. They include some of Capitol Hill's most famous and experienced lawmakers.

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In interviews, five of the 25 ''voluntary'' retirees praise the rising breed of legislators as more capable and knowledgeable than their predecessors. But some of the departing members bemoan a slow and unwieldy House that seems to respond only to dire emergencies and a Senate that allows members to drone on for hours in an almost empty chamber.

Perhaps no one winces at the noncommunication of a Senate filibuster more than Sen. S. I. Hayakawa (R) of California, a semanticist by profession and one of the Senate's more colorful characters. He rode into Washington six years ago on a wave of popularity because, as president of San Francisco State College in 1968, he quelled student riots with a swift call to the police.

''In the Senate, the right to speak at length is protected with almost a holy zeal,'' he says. ''But the right to speak doesn't mean anything unless it's accompanied by listeners.''

''What happens when a filibuster goes on? All the senators leave,'' he says.

Senator Hayakawa recently played a key role in ending a filibuster of a proposed anti-abortion measure. The matter had tied up the Senate in knots for weeks, and in a surprise move, Hayakawa stood up and moved to table it. His motion passed by a bare majority.

Why did he, a staunch conservative and friend of anti-abortion leader Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, make that motion?

''That's very interesting,'' Hayakawa says. He explains that he is a member of the ''Steering Committee,'' a group of about 20 conservative Republican senators, including Senator Helms, their current chairman. Most are abortion foes, explains Hayakawa, but ''I'm not.''

The Steering Committee had decided that ''to escape defeat, they would sooner have it tabled,'' says the Californian. But none of the others was willing to make the tabling motion.

''I was one of their crowd, so they asked me to make it,'' he says. ''Of course, they all voted against me.''

''They gave me a little victory,'' he says, because they reasoned that ''if the wrong side's going to win, one of their group is going to have the victory.''

Such an event points out how senators can work together, holds Hayakawa. ''It shows how we work in the sense that there's no demand for an orthodoxy.''

The California senator clearly leaves the Senate reluctantly. ''I met a finer class of people than I ever met in academic life,'' he says. He praises his fellow lawmakers' flexibility and pragmatism.

A member might have a serious argument on the Senate floor with someone from the education committee, he says, and ''two days later you and he are working together on milk price supports.''

The former college president plans to write books on one of a dozen or more subjects he has an interest in.

Shirley Chisholm, the always outspoken and frequently unpredictable Brooklyn congresswoman, delivers a parting shot to the institution she leaves after 23 years. ''We're always reacting to emergencies,'' she says of the House, upbraiding her own Democratic Party for failing to come up with programs for jobs and housing until the last minute.

''What have we been doing all year?'' she asks.

Even with that critique, however, Representative Chisholm voices optimism about the House. Most promising of all, she says, is the fall of the old seniority system, by which veteran lawmakers had virtually all the power.

''No longer is longevity the sole and prime consideration'' for being chosen committee chairman, she says, because the members elect them.

Moreover, she remembers when committee chairmen could, merely on the basis of a personal feud, doom a proposed piece of legislation. ''They would use the symbol of thumbs down,'' she says, and the bill would be dead. It was ''autocratic and dictatorial.''

Congresswoman Chisholm wasted no time in her first term in challenging entrenched House procedures. When the leadership tried to put Mrs. Chisholm, a former educator, on the Agriculture Committee, she dared to denounce the move publicly and won a committee change. ''People told me I had committed political suicide,'' she says, adding, ''I'm still here.''