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Efficiency-Minded Reformers Hit Snags

104TH CONGRESS

By Kurt ShillingerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 14, 1995



WASHINGTON

ON the opening day of the 104th Congress, Republicans pushed through more reforms than lawmakers had seen in 50 years.

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But even as they continue to look for ways to refashion how the House and Senate work, GOP lawmakers are finding that politics and tradition make it difficult to alter old habits.

Take just one example: floor wax.

On the Hill, the office of the Capitol architect is responsible for waxing the House floors and some parts of the Rotunda. But the Senate, not happy with this janitor's rules of order, has for decades relied on the Senate sergeant at arms to buff its chamber.

And maintenance isn't the only area where wasteful and overlapping practices still exist. Despite changes made so far, Republicans in the House and Senate are scouring every activity on Capitol Hill.

These GOP reformers are looking at everything from groundskeepers to committee staffs, searching for further ways to make government smaller, less expensive, and more effective.

While most lawmakers and independent reform consultants applaud the efforts, some see reason for concern.

The Republicans have politicized some reforms, critics charge, and neglected others. Despite promises, lobbying and campaign-finance reforms, which critics say are vital to the restoration of public confidence, seem to be on the back burner.

''The difficulties are out there,'' says Norman Ornstein, an American Enterprise Institute scholar and coauthor of a study on congressional reform. ''The reform process could get partisan.''

In both the House and Senate, perhaps the most important area of focus is committee reform. A few panels have jurisdiction over a broad number of issues, making them powerful and unwieldy fiefdoms.

At the start of the 104th Congress, Republicans cut and consolidated several panels and reduced staff by one-third. But Rep. David Dreier (R) of California, the architect of the changes, isn't satisfied. As chairman of a key rules subcommittee, he now hopes to engineer further committee reform.

''Rather than having two or three omnipotent committees, I think that we should have 10 or 11 very important committees,'' he says. A more even spread of jurisdiction ''enhances the opportunity for every member of Congress to have a chance to really participate in the legislative process.''

Though Mr. Dreier remains vague about the reforms he is considering, it is clear he supports folding such constituent-service-based panels as the Small Business Committee into larger committees and would make further reductions in the scope of the powerful Commerce and Ways and Means Committees.

Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana, who worked on committee reform last session, agrees that jurisdictional reform is the No. 1 priority. But he is less hopeful that Dreier will have the room to maneuveur. He recalls that powerful committee chairmen in his party prevented him from getting reform bills onto the floor.

''This institution won't work very well until committee jurisdiction is restructured,'' he says. ''But the likelihood of that is not very great.''

The Senate is also considering committee reform. A working group chaired by Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico and Sen. Connie Mack (R) of Florida has recommended a series of changes, including: abolishing a number of panels; reducing members' committee assignments; and cutting staff.

Another area under scrutiny is how to make Congress more deliberative. House Republicans argue that the reforms adopted on Jan. 4 work to that end. Members sit on fewer panels, allowing them more time to debate issues. And open rules allow any number of amendments to be considered.

But in the short term, the crunch to complete work on the GOP ''Contract With America'' by the end of the first 100 days is hampering debate in the House. And GOP leaders are learning that open rules may allow too many amendments to clutter the legislative process.

''These are not the best of times for deliberation,'' says Thomas Mann, a Brookings Institution scholar who co-authored the congressional-reform study with Dr. Ornstein. ''It is unnatural to put Congress on a forced march.''

House and Senate leaders are also considering several reforms to reduce the size of the federal government, such as cutting the staff of the Architect of the Capitol and hiring private contractors for maintenance services, and reducing or eliminating such legislative service groups as the General Accounting Office.

The key to successful reform, Mr. Hamilton says, is to make it continuous. ''The way to make this institution work better is to have ongoing reform so that every year you are considering two are three reform proposals,'' he says. ''What happens is just the opposite. You don't have any reforms for 25 years and all kinds of problems build up. The institution becomes very unreflective of the real world.''

Dreier, for one, vows to keep the reform ball rolling.