The Senate's business as usual just isn't what it used to be. New politics demands another look at Senate's century-old work habits

Strom Thurmond remembers the good old days. The good old days went something like this: Senators hopped aboard a train bound for Washington in January, passed laws for nine months, then took another train home. ``Two trips a year,'' recalls Senator Thurmond, a Republican from South Carolina who joined the Senate in 1956. Cooped up in the Capitol, many senators became friends, conducting business with all the cozy familiarity one might find in a private men's club. ``There was a sense of collegiality.''

Then came jet travel, and life just wasn't the same. Suddenly, lawmakers had little excuse not to travel home as often as they could. Work weeks shortened to accommodate travel schedules, and legislative sessions lengthened - partly to make up for lost time. Senators started to socialize less with one another.

Nowadays, cozy familiarity is out, individuality is in, and the Senate chamber is an arena for the sort of political brawls the Founding Fathers may have never foreseen. So an increasing number of lawmakers believe that the hardball world of modern politics demands nothing less than an overhaul of the Senate's century-old work habits.

``I think the country has outgrown a lot of Senate rules; it's ridiculous to have a situation where one senator or two senators or three senators can delay the Senate almost indefinitely,'' says Sen. William Proxmire (D) of Wisconsin. Adds Sen. Dan Quayle (R) of Indiana: ``If we don't change a few things around here, this place is going to come apart at the seams.''

Complaints about the Senate's unwieldy customs and processes are as old as the institution itself.

``Efficiency is not supposed to be the Senate's primary objective,'' says Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia. The Senate has always prided itself as the ``world's greatest deliberative body'' - a legislature where six-year terms insulate its members from fleeting political passions, and a place where inefficiency is a way of life.

Lately, however, the complaints have taken a different tone. Institutional reforms of the 1970s gave junior members the wherewithal to pursue their own political agendas. During the Reagan era, lawmakers wearily note, Senate debates have been punctuated by unusually sharp rhetoric and tactics. More worrisome to many senators is the thought that the nation's business is, in the process, slipping out from under them.

Nothing symbolizes this so much as the tumultuous closing days and nights of recent fiscal years, when members arise from gym cots in the middle of the night to vote on hundreds of amendments to massive catch-all spending bills.

Those concerns have been buttressed by the legislative gridlock accompanying recent debates on budget issues, arms control matters, and proposals to overhaul the Senate campaign financing laws.

``It's gotten worse, the record shows it's gotten worse,'' fumes Sen. Jake Garn (R) of Utah, citing the annual catch-all spending bill. ``To me that is an absolute disgrace.''

Moreover, lawmakers have become more vocal about their frustration with the unpredictability of the Senate's schedule.

``It's hard to participate in a normal family life if you never know whether you will make it home for dinner,'' says Senator Quayle, whose own family gets around the problem by holding picnics on the Capitol lawn, within sprinting distance of the Senate chamber. ``Some people put their private lives on hold.''

But they are not doing so as quietly as they used to.

Of the 13 senators elected in 1986, 10 came from the House, where tighter discipline and a steadier pace of legislating allows members to plan private lives with more assuredness than Senate counterparts. Those Senate freshman have lent their voices to the chorus for change.

As a result, ``quality of life'' has become a buzz-phrase in the Senate. Already, Senator Byrd has adopted some measures to improve his colleagues' lot: enforcing a 15 minute limit on the duration of roll call votes (earlier votes could drag on as long as an hour) and taking the Senate out of session one week every month so that senators can plan events outside Washington.

Furthermore, the race to succeed Byrd as Democratic leader will, in part, swing on competing proposals to streamline the Senate. ``The frustrations are understandable,'' says Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii, one of three Democrats competing for the post. ``Something will be done.''

No one knows just what that will entail. Some proposals would curb the ability of individual senators and groups of senators to filibuster legislation, to end the practice of attaching irrelevant amendments to bills, and to limit the number of committees on which senators may serve.

Other proposals would try to impose some predictability on the Senate's schedule - recommending, for example, a policy of adjourning no later than 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

But in an institution as tradition-bound as the Senate, such proposals invariably face a tough road. In the last four years, the Senate has conducted major reviews of itself at least three times, only to adopt only minor changes after each inquiry. Senior senators jealously guard their power bases against ``reform.''

Others fight against any changes that might affect the Senate's status as a ``deliberative'' body - and, consequently, the ability of the minority party or an individual senator to influence legislation.

``Efficiency is just not worth any price we might be willing to pay,'' says Sen. Wendell Ford (D) of Kentucky, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which must approve any such changes. Adds Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, who frequently relies on such rules to push his point, ``I view with apprehension any rules changes.''

Others suggest that their is something unique about the Senate that would be lost if too many changes were made. ``There is no magic solution that will automatically make the Senate a 9-to-5 job,'' says Byrd. ``We could make it a 9-to-5 job but it would no longer be the United States Senate.''

Friday: Plight of the House minority

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