Washington — In the early hours of Feb. 24, as the Senate droned through an all-night session, a dozen police officers fanned through the empty hallways of the Capitol. Armed with arrest warrants, they searched for Republican senators refusing to show up for a midnight vote. It was the beginning of a surreal chapter in the annals of Congress. Idaho's Steve Symms spotted the posse and scampered out of view. Later, a cleaning woman tipped the detail off to the whereabouts of Bob Packwood of Oregon. Senator Packwood wedged himself against his office door, but the search team forced its way in. Four police officers carried him feet first into the Senate chamber.
The episode lasted about an hour, the climax of a still-unresolved struggle between Democrats and Republicans over a campaign-finance reform bill. But it reflected tensions that had been building for years. Democrats and Republicans in the United States Congress almost always seem to be at an impasse over something these days. As a result, Congress is having an increasingly hard time running itself and the rest of the country.
``There's a sense that the whole system is breaking down,'' says Sen. Daniel Evans of Washington, a first-term Republican who has announced his impending retirement.
The campaign finance reform debacle is hardly an isolated example of congressional ineffectuality. Congress spends much of the year in a state of studied inaction. Toward the end of the year, it does erupt in a frenzy of legislating. But at that point, lawmakers are voting for hundreds of pages of bills they have never read on subjects they may have never thought about.
Partly because of its penchant for procrastination and partly because of confrontations with the executive branch, Congress has been unable to fully finance the federal government before the start of the fiscal year - its primary task - for a decade. Sometimes, the federal government has had to close down parts of itself while Congress and the White House ironed out their differences.
The annual budget deficit has nearly tripled over that decade: Last year, it weighed in at $150.4 billion. Meanwhile, the national debt has topped $2.5 trillion. Yet lawmakers still tuck special projects for the home state into spending bills and special breaks for friends and allies into tax bills, at a cost to the taxpayer of billions.
Furthermore, the issues that divide the country tie the Congress in knots, despite the battalions of experts recruited onto congressional staffs. The House and Senate have had scores of votes pertaining to the Reagan administration's policy of aiding the Nicaraguan contras. Yet new requests for aid continue to bring on spasms of confusion in both chambers.
``The system is creaking,'' says Rep. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois, a 29-year veteran of the House of Representatives and chairman of that body's Ways and Means Committee, agrees: ``Things don't run as smoothly as they used to.''
Actually, Congress is still capable of striking achievement. It confounded the experts by enacting the 1986 law overhauling the nation's tax code, for example. Moreover, Congress has never been a model of efficiency; the Founding Fathers took care to build a certain amount of institutional friction into the system. ``People have always been wringing their hands about Congress,'' says Senate majority leader Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia.
Yet many lawmakers says changes in the national political climate and in Congress's structure in the past 15 years have turned the creative tension envisioned by James Madison into gridlock.
``When I came here in 1961, the place was completely different,'' says Rep. Morris Udall (D) of Arizona. The advice of the late House Speaker Sam Rayburn, ``to get along, go along,'' was taken to heart by ambitious young lawmakers. Newcomers, recalls House majority leader Thomas Foley (D) of Washington, were to ``keep quiet and vote as you were told'' by his superiors.
No longer. Political entrepreneurship is at a premium in the modern Congress. The system effectively encourages lawmakers to pursue narrow goals, even if a larger cause suffers, so as to attract the special-interest money that finances the ever more-expensive reelection campaigns. ``Members know where their bread is buttered,'' says one Republican House staff aide. Moreover, 1970s reforms reducing the power of party leaders were accompanied by an explosion in the size of congressional staffs. Suddenly, junior lawmakers had the opportunity and wherewithal to pursue separate agendas.
Changes in the political environment have also altered the climate in Congress. In the early 1980s, Capitol Hill was the battleground of the Reagan revolution. Now, the Hill is the site of a peculiar sort of tug of war between the two parties, both of which seek to catapult one of their own to the White House next year.
Once again, the partisan tension is, at times, almost palpable, making consensus between Democrats and Republicans hard to come by. In the campaign finance reform fight, Republicans repeatedly voted en masse against a Democratic effort to bring to a vote a bill imposing spending limits on Senate campaigns. Finally, during a 53-hour marathon session, Republicans decided to stop showing up for votes, precipitating Senator Packwood's arrest.
Party-line votes are common. In the House, Republicans voted almost unanimously last month against a Democratic plan to extend basic supplies to the Nicaraguan contras. Having registered their protest against the majority Democrats, they voted with comparable uniformity to support a similar plan several weeks later. Last year, nearly every Republican in the House and Senate voted against the Democrats' budget plan. The preceding congressional budget negotiations were marked by such partisan bitterness that the Senate Budget Committee chairman, Lawton Chiles (D) of Florida, decided to retire shortly thereafter.
One might assume that such tussles would be forgotten as soon as the next election was settled. The ideological gap between Democrats on the Hill and the Republicans in the White House is at least partly responsible for Congress's apparent unruliness. ``This is the most partisan administration I've encountered in my 30 years up here,'' Senator Byrd grumbles.
Few, however, expect problems to disappear after Ronald Reagan leaves town. Three Senators unexpectedly announced they will call it quits at the end of this session. All echoed sentiments of Sen. Thomas Eagleton, who left the Senate in 1986 after three terms, partly because he balked at the idea of raising $8 million to fund a new campaign. ``I've got better things to do with my life,'' he said.
But they also blanch at the expectation of future ordeals. The budget deficit is expected to dominate the political agenda in the next decade, sharply constraining lawmakers' ability to create new federal programs and provoking bitter struggles over the allocation of tight financial resources. Senator Chiles, who has sat in the eye of the budgetary hurricane, puts his decision to leave Washington at the end of the year this way: ``I was not looking forward to another six years in the Senate.''
Those who are staying express dismay at the changes taking place. Many senators fret that the Senate has evolved from a gathering of legislative aristocrats to something on the order of a raucous town council, where sober consideration of policy is overwhelmed by political passions.
Part of the problem stems from the Senate rules, which enable individuals and small groups of senators to block legislation and force their colleagues to consider matters that they might just as soon avoid. Such institutional practices were fashioned to guard against the ``tyranny of the majority.'' But a number of senators say they were written for a more genteel age.
Some lawmakers will seek to embarrass their colleagues or set up campaign issues by forcing a vote on a politically touchy topic like AIDS or South Africa. Last year, a hardy band of Republicans held up the annual defense authorization bill for six months. ``The things that give individual senators such extraordinary amounts of power are the same things that make our lives miserable,'' says Sen. Wyche Fowler (D) of Georgia.
The filibuster, a long-established stalling technique once reserved for special occasions, is now threatened almost daily. So far in the 100th Congress, the Senate has voted 26 times to block variations of the filibuster. In earlier years, four or five such votes in an entire Congress - two years - would have been considered high.
``There's more haranguing and trying to postpone matters,'' complains Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina. Those concerns will dominate in the race to succeed Senator Byrd as Democratic leader, where the three announced candidates for the post have all voiced support for proposals to streamline Senate procedures.
In the House, customs and rules make it much more difficult for individuals to disrupt the body's work. So the legislative process flows with much greater predictability. ``When people say there's something wrong with Congress, they generally mean the Senate,'' says House majority leader Foley. ``I think things are running pretty well over here.''
Yet the House has problems of its own. Democrats have been in the majority there since 1952-54, leaving many Republicans embittered by their status as a permanent minority. So Republicans have been working off their frustrations by waging a sort of parliamentary guerrilla warfare against the majority - routinely disrupting Democratic legislative initiatives and sparking bitter partisan exchanges on the House floor.
In 1985, Republicans marched out of the House chamber en masse after the majority Democrats voted to resolve a contested election in favor of a Democrat. Last year, they booed House Speaker Jim Wright after he held a vote open just long enough to deliver a one-vote victory to the Democrats. Last month, Republicans defied the wishes of Nicaraguan contra leaders and voted unanimously against the Democrats' contra aid package, because they believed Democratic leaders had given their concerns short shrift.
``Partisanship is the toughest one - it prevents a lot from getting done,'' says Rep. Bill Frenzel (R) of Minnesota. Adds Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin: ``You can pass all the reforms in the world, but they won't amount to anything if the people don't change.''
First in a weekly series taking an inside look at Congress. Next Friday: The troubled Senate.