End of a Washington era: 'reform' falls on hard times

The often-dizzying flow of government reforms in the 1970s is showing signs of coming to an abrupt halt, and perhaps reversing, as the new decade begins. In the great wave of national moral reassessment that followed by Vietnam war. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) misadventures, and the Watergate Scandal. American government had in rapid succession:

* Curbed the military powers of the President.

* Ended the draft.

* Tightened supervisions of the CIA.

* Installed new safeguards against political corruption.

* Democratized Congress.

* Tinkered with the federal election machinery.

The '70s are only a half year behind us, but already important elements of all these reforms are being seriously questioned, sidestepped, softened, or virtually repealed altogether.

"Perhaps it went too far," says one House of Representatives Democrat who in the past supported much of the reformism. "Now we are trying to redress the balance. The pendulum is swinging the other way."

Among the measures getting a critical second look:

Curbs on the President's power to hand out foreign military aid. Congress appears ready to relax several restriction imposed during the late 1960s and early '70s, when lawmakers became concerned that Presidents Johnson and Nixon were abusing their aid-dispensng power to escalate the Vietnam war.

At the top of the list: quintupling from $10 million to $50 million the annual limit on emergency military supplies and services which the President on his own can send to friendly countries -- a device Mr. Nixon used to arm the Cambodian military without the approval of Congress.

The house is expected to approve the liberalizations this week.

Requiring the President to consult Congress before launching military operations abroad. The consultation provisions of the War Powers Act of 1973, another legacy of congressional frustration over Vietnam, went conspicuously umused in the abortive mission in April to rescue the 53 American hostage in iran.

President Carter contends the law did not apply, but many lawmakers, including both proponents and opponents of it at the time it was enacted, say the measure was circumvented.

The military draft. Seven years after its end as perhaps the most disruptive symbol of an unpopular war -- generating countless mass protests and turning thousands of young Americans into draft resisters -- conscription has taken a long step back into national life.

At the President request in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the House in April approved registering 19- and 20-year- olds for military service. The Senate is scheduled to act this week.

Closer congressional scrutiny of the CIA. Congress is preparing to surrender much of the prior notification of covert CIA operations which it required in 1974, largely in reaction to disclosures about the intelligence agency's role in undermining the Allende government in Chile.

The senate agreed June 3, on an almost routine vote of 89 to 1, to cut the number of congressional committees receiving notice from eight to two. The House is soon expected to followed. The rationable: to lower the risk of leaks.

Special prosecutor mechanism. The post- Watergate procedure triggering the appointment of a temporary special prosecutor to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by high- ranking federal officials is being questioned by some who barely two years ago championed it as a much-needed reform.

The latest disenchantment is spawned by the massive special-prosecutor probe into charges that White House Chief of Staff hamilton Jordan had sniffed cocaine at a new York discotheque. After a full FBI investigation, 19 grand jury sessions, testimony from some 100 witnesses, and a 53-page judicial report, the grand jury concluded no criminal charges were warranted.

The Washington Post, the newspaper that uncovered much of the Watergate scandal, editorially scorns the accusations against Mr. Jordan as "inconsequential" and "frivolous." It complains: "There should be a better process. . . . "

"Cleaner" sources of private money for federal campaign chests. Congress is having second thoughts about the political action committees, or PACs, which it deliberately encouraged in the post-Watergate election reforms of 1974.

The idea was to channel special-interest campaign contributions through federally registered committees subject to public disclosure and strict financial limits. They have mushroomed into the fastest-growing bankroller of congressional campaigns, pumping perhaps $55 million into Capitol Hill races this year -- nearly five times as much as they did in 1974.

Distributed by their mounting influence in elections and legislation, the house voted last October to crack down on the PACs it on ce coddled. The restrictive legislation awaits action in the Senate.

The presidential primary system. Originally hailed as a reformist alternative to boss-controlled state conventions or smoke- filled rooms as a way of choosing delegates to presidential nominating conventions, the January to June series of state primaries and caucuses is increasingly criticized as too long, to frantic, and too superficial to really illuminate presidential issues and qualifications.

The list of critics includes President Carter's campaign manager Robert S. Strauss, former President Gerald R. Ford, and two political casualties of this year's presidential marathon, sen Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee, and Sen. Robert J. Dole (R) of Kansas.

Proposals for different systems, such as regional primaries, abound.

Opening up Congress. The Reform wave of the 1970s has transformed the nation's law- making branch of government by breaking down the rule of seniority , diffusing the powers of committee chairmen, and forcing more roll-call votes.

But more democracy often has brought more disorder. Over one-half of all democrats in House, for example, now chair their own subcommittees -- 143 of them. and the House spent 224 hours last year just casting votes.

In the past two years some of the recent reforms have been rolled back a bit and further reforms rejected -- efforts sometimes led, ironically, by one-time reformers.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.