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What Congress Needs Is Real Reform

By Joel HefleyRep. Joel Hefley (R) of Colorado is on the Armed Services Committee, Small Business Committee, and Interior and Insular Affairs Committee. / June 2, 1992



CONGRESS has been making headline news for months - and none of it has been good. Scandal on Capitol Hill, a budget deficit expected to top over $400 billion this year, a growing number of uninsured Americans, and a struggling economy have fueled the fires of voter anger like never before.

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The American people are angry at the president, angry with Congress, angry at the system. They believe government is out of touch with mainstream America, and they've lost hope that they can make a difference.

Respect for Congress and confidence in the government is at a historical low. Public perception of Congress as a privileged body pampered by perks has become more widespread as daily news stories report the latest scandals on Capitol Hill - abuses at the House Bank, post office, and dining room. The "throw the rascals out" mentality is more prevalent than ever before. Americans are disillusioned by the process, tired of the empty rhetoric, and ready for change.

How do I spell change? R-E-F-O-R-M. For nearly four decades, the House of Representatives has been governed under the partisan rules of the Democratic leadership. Because of such a long reign, corruption has wormed its way into the process. No doubt the same would be true had Republicans been in power for so long. With little change over the years, the system has ossified by bickering and partisan wrangling. Little on the legislative front gets accomplished.

To turn this tide around, Congress must change the rules by which the game is played. Only then will Congress be able to focus on the true needs of the American people instead of reelection.

Here are six reforms that would make an immediate and positive impact on how Congress functions:

1. My hope is that the House leadership would change hands. The Democrats have controlled the process for almost 40 years; the nation needs a change in command. The upcoming election is bound to produce at least 100 to 150 new faces in Congress, most who have run on a reform platform. Even if Republicans fail to gain an outright majority, we stand a good chance of producing a better balance.

2. Committees and their staffs should be made up more proportionately to the number of Democrats and Republicans in the House. Currently, the Democrats thoroughly stack the committees and staffs with far more of their members than the ratio between the two parties in the House. This puts Republicans at a clear disadvantage on every issue and every piece of legislation that's debated in committee.

3. The number of committees should be cut in half, along with the number of staff aides who serve them.

4. Do away with proxy voting in committees. It's a bad policy that only serves to strengthen already too-powerful chairmen who use it to their advantage on every vote, especially those deemed to be unfavorable to the majority party.

5. Change the makeup of the Rules Committee. Because Democrats stack this all-important committee in their favor, most of the rules are "closed rules" whereby debate is severely limited and controlled by the leadership.

6. Stop the process by which outrageous and costly "pork" projects get surreptitiously attached to bills in the wee hours of the morning. This bad practice happens most frequently during conference committees between the House and Senate, where deals are cut behind closed doors. Billions of dollars for needless projects never debated either on the House floor or in committee are added to bills late at night without the opportunity for anyone to know what's in the bill. While some members are "bringing ho me the bacon" to ensure their next reelection bid, taxpayers are getting ripped off.

It's easy to close a House bank, increase the membership fee for the House gym, and raise the cost of a haircut, but these are not real reforms. The six reforms I've outlined would make a dramatic difference in how Congress operates. If they were implemented, Congress could do a much better job of making government more effective for the American people and every member of Congress could be a full participant in the process.

A solid though run-down house - a "fixer-upper" - can be made into a home with the right tools, hard work, and determination. With the right reforms, hard work, and determination, the House of Representatives can become effective again.

Many Americans have lost faith in their representatives, and they're one step away from losing faith in our system of government. It's time to restore that faith and get the nation moving forward again.