Congress Takes On Task Of Mending Its Ways
Panel may try to cut influence of lobbyists, reduce staffs, enforce ethical standards
WASHINGTON — THE Senate has lost its soul," laments Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia. "It is not the Senate I once knew."
A colleague, Sen. David Boren (D) of Oklahoma, concurs. "We love this institution, ... but it's not working," he says sadly.
Congress is in serious trouble. The senators know it. The representatives know it. The nation knows it.
The people's branch of government, the centerpiece of the American republic, has lost the confidence of millions of voters. In many ways, Congress has even lost confidence in itself.
Great and historic debates, which once brought excited crowds to the Senate galleries, now are largely replaced with 30-second sound bites crafted for television news. Senators and representatives sometimes speak to near-empty chambers.
The Capitol's hallways, where giants like Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, and Henry Clay once trod, now are thick with $500,000-a-year lobbyists, bureaucrats, and press secretaries.
Senator Byrd, a 40-year veteran of Capitol Hill, says something vital and enduring has been lost. Congress's reputation for good laws and great thinking has eroded, especially during the past decade.
A Gallup poll last June found that only 11 percent of Americans still rate congressmen highly for ethics and honesty. That puts them behind real estate agents, bankers, law-yers, journalists, and nearly every other occupation. The lawmakers ranked only slightly ahead of car and insurance salesmen.
In the face of such public scorn, a bipartisan group of Democrats and Republicans has undertaken a year-long effort to bring drastic reform to Capitol Hill.
The task is being directed by the 24-member Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress. Its two chairmen are Senator Boren and Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana. Its two vice-chairmen are Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico and Rep. David Dreier (R) of California.
Their job is monumental - perhaps even impossible. Boren wants wants sweeping, even radical, changes in the way Congress works. But he knows time is running out. "If this does not happen this year, I don't think it ever will," he says.
Representative Dreier is equally serious. He calls their group "the most important committee in the Congress this year."
Boren says he will not be dissuaded by entrenched interests. He tells the Monitor: "I'm going to call it like I see it. I'm not going to hesitate to put my colleagues on the spot.... I'm not interested in doing something cosmetic, just so we can say we passed congressional reform. It's got to be meaningful. I'd rather lose, and go down fighting for something meaningful, than to win on something that's just going to be incremental."
What are the changes that Boren and others think would put Congress back on the right path? What are changes for which Boren says he would be "willing to lose a lot of blood"? Dozens of proposals
There are dozens of proposals to fix Congress. But many members here say that the most important, far and away, is campaign reform. Without it, Congress will remain beholden to special interests and lobbyists who open their wallets each election year and buy influence.
It's not just the money itself that worries lawmakers, however. They say most members are so distracted by the quest for campaign cash that they don't have time to do their jobs.
Nearly as important as campaign finance reform is the need to reduce congressional staffs. According to the Office of Personnel Management, there are currently 38,509 people on the legislative payroll. That is over 70 people for every elected member.
While many employees work extremely long and difficult hours, reformers want to see payrolls slashed drastically - by one-quarter to one-half. They say the staffs are bloated and their great numbers actually bog down work in Congress.
Along with the staff reduction would be a cut in the number of committees. The House of Representatives and the Senate now have a total of 299 committees and subcommittees. The result is overlapping jurisdictions, confusion, and an excessive number of assignments for members. Members rush from meeting to meeting, unable to give more than cursory attention to committee business. Reformers would knock out all but 50 to 100 of the committees and subcommittees. Possible reforms
Several other reforms also rank highly. Among them:
* Improve the budget process. Ever since Congress changed its budget procedure several years ago, deficits have gotten worse. One suggested change would combine the authorization and appropriations committees to mark clear lines of responsibility for overspending.
* Revive great debates. Both Congress and the public benefit from thorough debates of major policy issues. Congress forms a consensus and refines policy, while educating the public.
* Enforce ethics. Congress polices its own ethics violations. One proposal would empower an outside group - perhaps composed of retired judges or ex-congressmen - to do fact-finding when the ethics of a senator or representative are questioned.
Unless Congress repairs itself quickly, Boren worries the public will impose its own reforms, including the most dreaded idea on Capitol Hill - term limits.
Boren empathizes with the public's anger. He says: "If we don't get these things done, I myself might be for term limits before it's over with."
* First of a weekly series.