Urgent questions for Congress: round-table report from Capitol Hill

The two lawmakers complain of too many meetings and not enough time. Often their schedules put them in several places at once. If they try to shut themselves in their offices, staffers are ''out there scratching at the door,'' says Sen. Alan K. Simpson, clawing at the air in pantomime.

Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro agrees. But she calls fund raising the worst part of her job and worries aloud that special-interest groups appear to buy influence, even though her own campaign fund accepts political action committee money. She would limit campaign spending, she says.

Fund raising turns politicians into ''beggars,'' says Senator Simpson. But he is more concerned that special-interest groups pay fees to Congress members for speeches and articles. Known as one of Washington's folksiest and best speakers, he earned $16,000 in honorariums last year, less than the majority of his Senate colleagues. He would limit honorariums to 30 percent of a senator's salary.

The two members, whose politics are as different as east and west, recently shared their views on the nation's legislature.

Simpson, a Republican and a staunch fiscal conservative, comes from Wyoming, where he has just three constituents per square mile. Congresswoman Ferraro, a Democrat who usually votes in the liberal column, represents Queens, a borough of New York City.

Both are lawyers who won their seats in Congress in 1978, and both have moved into leadership roles. Congresswoman Ferraro serves as secretary of the House Democratic Caucus. Senator Simpson chairs the Veterans' Affairs Committee as well as several subcommittees.

Here, in edited form, is their conversation.

A member of Congress has to decide on everything from peanut prices to nuclear weapons. How can you be genuinely informed before you vote?

Representative Ferraro: I belong to a group called the Democratic Study Group (which provides background information on issues coming to the House floor), and that's one source of information.

In addition, your constituents keep you informed of their views on the issues; you get information from the groups that are interested in the issue; and then, of course, if your committee has been working on it, you've been physically involved with the issue.

Senator Simpson: I think the senators have the advantage there. They have a larger budget. They have a larger staff. And so they're able to monitor a little better, I think, than the House members.

And then we, too, have our policy committees (one Democratic, one Republican). A person should be pretty well apprised of the issue before he or she casts a vote. And that's easy enough to do, even though it's a maelstrom of stuff that we get involved with.

How important are the views of constituents when you vote on an issue?

Ferraro: It depends on the issue. I don't feel I'm down here to be a robot, voting the way my constituents want and only that way. When I first ran, I took a ''choice'' position on abortion. I represented a very conservative district that was not supposed to elect a Democrat. It is 70 percent (Roman) Catholic, and everyone said ''You are committing suicide by your 'choice' position.'' I felt I morally and emotionally could not deal with the issue except as I did.

My people have on numerous occasions said to me, ''We don't agree with you on the issues, but you're doing a good job, and we believe that what you're doing is right, and so we will vote for you.''

Let me just add one thing. If there is a strong sentiment in my district on an issue, I will seriously look at it and consider their concerns. An example is tuition tax credits. My district feels very, very strongly about it. . . . I don't feel that it will damage the public school system. As a matter of fact, I vote for funding for public education. But tuition tax credits are something that my constituents feel very, very strongly (in favor of), and I do support it.

Simpson: I'll get into some red-hot ones like immigration reform where they'll (constituents) hammer me around. They'll say, ''What are you messing with this issue for?''

It's a political no-win thing from end to end. But they will give me the ability to function. I go back to them often, and I say, ''You may not like this , but let me explain this to you so you can hear it.''

Ferraro: I think that what happens is they recognize that we have the ability to get information that they're not capable of having. And we base our judgment on that kind of information.

How would you advise a voter who wants to persuade a Congress member on an issue?

Simpson: I'd just advise him to go right in there and nail him or her. I have town meetings. I enjoy doing that. And some of those people who come are loaded for bear. You can just spot 'em. Their neck muscles are pumping and they're ready to roll. And you just let 'em vent. And I can hear things from people like that. They're helpful.

But I represent a constituency which is smaller than the congresswoman's district in numbers - 370,000 people in the state of Wyoming. It's so intimate that you can walk down the street and some guy'll jump off a chair and say, ''Why did you vote for the Department of Education, you big poop?''

And I'll say, ''If you'll listen for a minute, I'll tell you.'' It forces you to really hone your responses.

Ferraro: I do a lot of personal communication with my people as well. I'm on the Aging Committee, and I have the largest senior population in New York State in my district - over 100,000 elderly in my district alone.

I also do town-hall meetings. I did three during the July break. I have a very good ability to communicate with my people. I'm Geraldine to them. I'm not ''the congresswoman.''

But I feel very firmly that if they don't agree with me, that's fine. I don't like people yelling at me, and I won't put up with it. We were at a town-hall meeting and we had right-to-lifers that were just incredibly bad. So bad that I had to call the police. My problem was that I had a little old lady sitting in the front row who wanted to defend me.

I say things like ''I'm not a public servant.'' I'm not. I'm a public official who loves my job. I want to do it right.

How persuasive are lobbyists on Capitol Hill? Do they perform a useful function?

Simpson: Yes, they do provide a useful function. They are not as ominous as citizens might think. In fact, they can give you a degree of depth on an issue that sometimes you just can't find. And then you have your staff probe that (information) in their own intelligent way. I use them as a resource base.

Ferraro: I would agree. I think they're invaluable as a resource, as experts on a subject. And then, of course, if you have lobbyists on both sides of an issue then you really get a complete understanding of what the issue is about.

What bothers me about lobbyists and how they are perceived by the public is what is behind the lobbyists. And that is the contributions to campaigns. I feel very, very strongly about the cost of campaigns, the amount of money that members of Congress and senators spend. And that's part of my problem with lobbyists. When they're representing a PAC (political action committee) that has contributed thousands upon thousands of dollars, then it becomes overbearing.

How much of a burden is raising money for campaigns?

Ferraro: I hate the idea of raising money. If you were to say to me, ''What part of this job do you hate?'' well, that's it. It's degrading. You spend so much time doing it that you would rather spend studying issues or doing something for your district, or even doing something for yourself.

The other thing is for women it's a lot harder to raise money. It's very difficult because the people that you usually raise from, especially when you run a first race, are your friends. Now, how many women do you know who are going to sit down and write a check for $1,000? How many do you know who will write one for $500? How many do you know who will write it for $100? That's the difference between a man running and a female running. The guys have it much, much easier.

Simpson: I'm up in '84, and I'm budgeting between $800,000 and $1 million. Right now, I am making more calls, and I will do a lot of fund-raisers from coast to coast in this next six months. I'd like to get that out of the way. . . . It's an adventure in being a beggar.

I have $100,000 in the till now, and I bet that if the FEC (Federal Election Commission) reports were looked at for the 33 of us (senators) that are running, I'm probably the lowest in the kitty.

Ferraro: My last race ran me about $80,000 or $90,000. I will raise $250,000 or $200,000. What will happen is, I say I will raise that. What I will do is, I will anticipate whether or not I will get a challenger. If I don't have a challenger, I won't bother.

Are you concerned about the clout that lobbyists carry because of campaign contributions?

Simpson: I have never felt in my gut the heat from a lobbyist who contributed through a PAC. I feel more of a strangeness when I accept an honorarium.

In Wyoming there's a smaller reservoir of money. To get that $1,000 contribution is more difficult, so you rely a great deal on political action committee money. I don't have a twinge about it because . . . the state runs on oil and gas and coal and tourism.

If you (take an) honorarium, and you're off picking up 2,000 bucks (for a speech for some special-interest group), I have a stranger feeling about that as a conflict than anything I've ever had with regard to political action committees or an individual contribution.

Ferraro: The public perception is that lobbyists are down here with their contributions buying votes. I'm not saying that is actually happening, but what I'm saying is that the perception exists and I think that's wrong. I think that it casts a pall over the institution.

I'm in favor of limiting spending. I don't care about how much anybody gives. But I'm in favor of limiting spending for campaigns because if you don't have to raise the money, you don't have to be indebted.

One complaint from members of Congress is that there are too many demands on your time. How do you deal with this problem?

Simpson: It's absurd when you get a computer readout from your staff and it shows that you have four meetings at the same time. And that happens more often than you would imagine. Now that we're in the majority - and I've just been here 41/2 years - I chair Immigration and Nuclear Regulation (subcommittees) and Veterans' Affairs (full committee). And all of those have terribly emotional hearings. Agent Orange, nuclear moratoriums, immigration, atomic veterans.

Now there's one way to cure that. And that's the way that is unheard of around here. I could go into the leadership and say, ''Hey, take one of these babies away from me.'' And they would say, ''What? You don't mean that.'' But I would really hope that we would reallocate things.

In my situation, when I have a constituent here, he's come 2,000 miles. And, brother, I see him. I tell my staff, ''Look, I don't pay you. They do. The guy at the door is paying you, not me.''

The only time you get to work around here is at night. I can't get any work done around this joint in the daytime. There are ways to correct that, but they all have to do with lessening turf. And that's a very difficult thing around here.

Ferraro: Some of our problems are similar, though we come from different directions. I'm not chair of any subcommittee or committee.

I come down Tuesday, and I stay until Thursday night. I work in my district Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. So what I've got to do down here is shove into three days what would ordinarily be put into five days.

I don't do any of the social stuff down here because my family is at home. I'm on Aging (Select Committee on Aging) plus a subcommittee on that. I'm on Budget and two task forces on that. And I'm on Public Works (committee) and four subcommittees. I go to hearings. I participate. I want to know what the issues are. In addition, I'm part of the leadership. I'm secretary of the (Democratic) Caucus.

When you're one of 12 Democratic women, you end up with a national constituency. Republican women are the same way. We all end up representing all the women of America. And I'm sure it's the same way with blacks, the same way with some of our Jewish members as well. So that's an additional burden.

I don't know how I get it all put together except that I go through my schedule to make sure that the things I'm doing are things I want to do and I feel are necessary to do.

Often we don't see many members on the floors of the Senate and the House. Can you explain?

Ferraro: The House proceedings are televised, and so you can sit in your room , get your mail done, and actually have people coming in and out, and you can still watch the debate if you want.

Simpson: The issue for me is that literally with the committees of Environment and Public Works, Judiciary, and Veterans all meeting - and, of course, the subcommittees - I really am on those, and I am just not on the floor unless there's something hopping. We don't have television, but we do monitor with audio. And then I have one staff member that just monitors the entire day's activity.

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