Congress: Heal Thyself

DESPERATE to save their jobs or throwing in the towel altogether, the members of the 102nd Congress limped home leaving the country and themselves a little worse for the wear. Scandal and cries for reform notwithstanding, these legislators left behind an institution - the Congress of the United States - in need of a major overhaul.

The current outcry for congressional reform originated during the 1990 budget impasse, a battle between those who wanted to raise taxes to reduce the deficit and those opposed to any tax increase. The ironic result? Congress raised taxes and increased the deficit. A year later the Senate embarrassed itself by its handling of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. This year the House did its part by fueling public outrage with a banking scandal. Small wonder that campaigning against Congress has becom e this year's most popular election strategy.

The problems in Congress affect not just the way Americans perceive it but also its actual operation. Take national security. Defense bills struggle through a labyrinth of 107 congressional committees and subcommittees. Somehow, though, "pork" projects that do nothing "to provide for the common defense" routinely find their way into law. These unfortunate realities, alarmingly common, have caused more than one hopeful legislator to quit Washington in despair.

The need for reform cries out in the street - and on the Hill. Sens. David Boren (D) of Oklahoma and Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, joined by Reps. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana and Willis Gradison Jr. (R) of Ohio, earlier this year introduced a well-constructed, responsible plan for congressional reform. They proposed the creation of a joint committee that would recommend a comprehensive package of reforms.

Drawing lessons from earlier self-reform efforts, the proposal limited the committee's life to a single year in order to truncate the delays that have characterized past attempts at reform. It also identified areas in particular need of reform: for example, the size of the overall congressional staff, which has increased a stunning 600 percent since 1947.

As originally written, this proposal guaranteed public involvement in reform. Specifically, it gave committee seats to four private citizens. And it put the pressure to act on the committee's findings exactly where it belonged: exclusively on the Congressional Rules Committee.

Not surprisingly, Congress passed the legislation only after it had sufficiently weakened it. The initial proposal called for a small, efficient committee of senators, representatives, and private citizens. Before the bill passed, the committee's size had ballooned to make it the largest joint congressional committee. Our legislators eliminated the four public positions, leaving the committee wholly a creature of Congress itself. Further, Congress diluted the impact of the committee's recommendations by referring them not to the Committee on Rules but rather to "appropriate committees."

WHILE Congress gave the committee authority to discuss issues completely unrelated to congressional reform, such as comparing executive-branch perquisites with those of Congress, it removed language mandating a study of the vital issues of congressional staff size and compensation.

Can this new committee enact real reform?

Yes, but only if it returns to the three principles undergirding the initial proposal:

Public involvement: Congress has a serious public-image problem. The committee must involve the public in a substantive way and keep the reform process open to public scrutiny.

Timely action: The committee must set an ambitious but achievable time frame to hold Congress accountable. Its recommendations should go to the full Congress by the end of next June.

Focused attention: Congress must be willing to examine itself with a critical eye. The committee needs to focus on substantive issues and not be sidetracked by token changes, such as the recent "reform" that struck down a rule forbidding members on the House floor from reading periodicals.

The 103rd Congress must keep a sorry history from repeating itself. By forcing the new joint committee to act promptly, thoroughly, and honestly, it will.

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