WITH more than 100 new faces, the Congress that convenes next January will be a notably different body from the embattled 102nd Congress. Americans' disgust with their national legislature crescendoed over the past two years, climaxing with the House banking scandal. Many of the newcomers are determined to polish the institution's image, removing the stains of privilege and special interest.
Their zeal, however, will be tempered by a number of factors. First, some of Congress's most notorious shortcomings, such as the mismanaged House bank, have already been addressed. Second, many of the new arrivals, loyal Democrats, will be more intent on getting behind Bill Clinton's reformist agenda than pushing for one of their own. Finally, the real clean-up-the-mess zealots are apparently few in number. Only 14 freshmen representatives, out of 110, attended a recent meeting in Omaha, Neb. intended to rally the new members into a perk-bashing brigade.
This does not mean that the reform impulse is already losing energy. That energy will come more from the public than from the congressional freshmen, though their large contingent represents a ripeness for institutional change. The key question is, what kind of change will do the most good?
One useful answer to this question is provided by the work of Thomas Mann at the Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein at the American Enterprise Institute. They have spent much of the past two years talking with other students of Congress - both inside and outside its chambers - to come up with a reform agenda that would significantly alter such hoary structures as committee chairmanships and the scheduling of bills.
At the heart of the Mann-Ornstein recommendations, the first set of which were published Nov. 19, is a desire to enable Congress to do a better job of setting its own agenda. This entails giving the leadership in the House and Senate more authority than it now exercises and clipping the wings of powerful chairmen. It also entails revising the rules of debate to better serve the purposes of clarifying policy options and presenting new ideas, rather than the political ends of individual members.
Congress, of course, can't be expected to swallow this large helping of reform all at once. And, with longtime members wedded to the old ways of doing things, some of it will never go down. But support for such innovations as a "majority agenda committee" to set legislative priorities and monitor their progress could begin to take shape right away at the House party caucuses, which this week start laying plans and making assignments for the coming session.
Reform will be shaped in a much different context than the past two years. The government will be unified - with the president and congressional majorities both Democratic - not divided. Gridlock will be less grinding.
But that's not an argument for backing off reform. Americans' central democratic institution, that nearest the people, needs improvement. The United States should become an even better example of productive democracy. Not just sharp-eyed Americans, but millions more in other countries where free government is in its infancy, will be watching.