TIP O'NEILL, the redoubtable former Speaker of the House of Representatives, has described how different Congress was 200 years ago. A representative left his plow or business and came to Washington for a few years. He lived in a boardinghouse, ate his meals with other lawmakers, and cursed ``the insects, Washington's heat and humidity, and the open sewer that ran near the Capitol building.'' Then, in the 1930s, came air conditioning. Congress has not been the same since.
Today lawmakers keep a home in or near Washington, and the legislature is in session almost year-round. The eighth Congress, which sat between 1803 and 1805, dealt with only 207 bills and adopted about half of them. The 99th Congress, meeting between 1984 and 1986, worked its way through some 12,000 bills and joint resolutions. It enacted some 800.
The subject matter of bills, moreover, is more complex today than before.
Has Congress fulfilled the intent of the framers of the Constitution?
James Madison and other framers expected Congress to be the dominant branch of government. They put it first in the Constitution and assigned more powers to it than to the presidency.
Two hundred years later the United States Congress remains the most powerful and stable representative body in the world. It continues to play a significant, independent role in making laws, setting the nation's course, and counterbalancing the powers of the two other branches.
``In a world in which toy parliaments and sham legislatures are the rule, ours is a representative system that really does represent,'' says Ross K. Baker, a professor at Rutgers University. ``It is remarkably open, astonishingly accessible, and a more accurate reflection than most would imagine of the American people themselves.''
Yet Congress has also evolved into a cumbersome, chaotic body sometimes thwarted by a strong executive and often stalled because of fragmentation of power, an onerous workload, and relentless campaign pressures.
The result is often indecision and gridlock in dealing with urgent national problems. Congress alone, for instance, has the power of the purse, including the right to raise taxes and coin money. Yet it has acquiesced in the largest federal budget deficits in the nation's history.
Lawmakers acknowledge frustration.
``The nature of the problems since World War II has stretched the 18th-century base,'' says Charles McC. Mathias Jr., a retired US senator from Maryland. ``The Senate used to be more conceptual. Now it's bogged down in trivia, which obstructs the deliberative function.''
Comments Rep. Dick Cheney of Wyoming: ``We get mired in detail and aren't debating the broader issues like strategic defense.''
The history of Congress points to an ebb and flow in the distribution of power between the branches of government and within the legislature. Through much of the first 100 years Congress dominated the government. Early on, the House of Representatives was ascendant. The president was in effect nominated by a party system centered in the House.
Later the Senate took the lead, with such figures as Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John Calhoun emerging as the leaders of the day. While the Civil War swung enormous power to President Lincoln, after his assassination Congress resumed its drive for ascendancy. It dictated its own Reconstruction policies in the defeated South, and in 1868 the House impeached President Andrew Johnson. Power shifts BY 1915, however, the pendulum began shifting to ``government-by-the-president,'' as Everett Carll Ladd writes in ``The American Polity.'' Rapid industrialization invited stronger presidential leadership to cope with larger demands on the government.
With the Great Depression, Congress, which was unsuited to managing new programs, increasingly surrendered power to Franklin D. Roosevelt, even while occasionally acting as a brake on new initiatives.
``There's no way Congress could deal with the problems of the '30s,'' says political analyst Horace Busby. ``So it created the Interstate Commerce Commission and other agencies and delegated [power] to the presidency.''
The Vietnam war and Watergate, however, contributed to a reassertion of congressional power.
After decades in which power steadily drained away from Congress to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the lawmakers fought back. They passed the War Powers Resolution, reformed the campaign laws, outlawed the impoundment of budget funds, and adopted the Freedom of Information Act, making it harder for the executive to keep secret files on people not accused of crime.
Several congressional committees appointed subcommittees on oversight to keep closer check on how the executive branch was enforcing the laws. Congress also began investigating abuses by the Central Intelligence Agency.
Whereas bipartisanship characterized US foreign policy in the early years after World War II, tensions began to arise between the legislature and the president over the shaping of policy abroad. That congressional activism continues to this day as lawmakers challenge President Reagan on arms control, South African sanctions, Nicaraguan contra aid, military assistance for Arab nations, and other issues. So involved are lawmakers that Mr. Reagan, and many diplomatic experts, complain that he is unable to discharge his constitutional duty to conduct foreign policy.
By the end of the 1960s, too, social and demographic changes in the South and a nationalization of politics led to a new political independence in Congress. Large numbers of newcomers were elected who pushed for a shift in the balance of power in the legislature itself, especially in the House. The seniority system was changed, with committee chairmen losing much of their control. The number and power of subcommittees vastly increased. Party discipline broke down.
With the dispersal of authority came also an explosion of congressional staffs. In 1947 there were some 500 committee staff members and 2,000 personal staff members. Today, about 290 committees and subcommittees employ some 3,000 aides, and more than 10,000 people work for the 535 members of Congress.
The net effect of the reforms has been a wider distribution of power among the rank-and-file lawmakers. ``In the old days you only voted against the Speaker if you were willing to lose the vote, your parking space, and everything else,'' says Rep. William H. Gray III of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Budget Committee. ``Now the members are more independent and the young get an opportunity to lead. It's made possible my quick elevation, too.''
Significantly, the changes have made the legislative process more open and deliberative. They have also resulted in a greater professionalization of Congress. Many members have become specialists on such intricate issues as nuclear arms control, the tax system, and toxic wastes. This has helped Congress keep its position as an initiator of policy despite the increased power of the presidency.
``Congress used to rely on the president and executive branch for information,'' says political scientist Nelson Polsby. ``Today it relies on its staffs. ... Specialization is the genius of Congress - it's the only competent legislature in the world.'' System has kinks NONETHELESS, many legislators are having second thoughts about the ``democratization'' of Congress. Paradoxically, while the reforms of the 1960s and '70s have eliminated the autocratic nature of congressional leadership, they have also contributed to duplication and, often, to a state of near-anarchy and deadlock.
The defense budget process, for instance, is hostage to a layered system of authorization and appropriation committees that often leads to missed deadlines and impasse. Some bills are approved without any debate, others are filibustered to death. It is often difficult for the majority will to prevail, because of erosion of the powers of seniority and leadership.
Responding to their bosses' urge to find issues they can take political credit for, eager young staff aides spend their time thinking up new initiatives, clogging the process even more.
``All the subcommittees and exponential growth of the Congress cause a constant reinventing of the wheel,'' says Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas. ``Each Congress goes back over the same territory because of the way we have grown and how the whole political structure has developed.''
Veteran members of Congress wistfully recall the days of House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson, who had a close working relationship and often met with President Eisenhower to work out the legislative agenda. Now there are few leaders who can collaborate with the president.
``What the framers had in mind was that the three branches would be separate and equal but also `coordinate','' says former Senator Mathias. ``And that's the weak word today. We are very loath to coordinate policy between the various branches.''
Arizona Rep. Morris K. Udall, chairman of the House Interior Committee, was among the movers and shakers behind the post-Watergate reforms. Today he, too, is concerned.
``The House reform overshot itself,'' he says. ``It spread the action, but it led to a loss of stability. Now it's harder to strike deals with the president. ... And I spend lots of time just fending off other people's staffs.''
In 1987 the life of a member of Congress is an unrelenting whirl of committee and subcommittee meetings, midnight staff sessions, roll calls in predawn hours, hurried visits to districts, answering of letters, and public-relations activity aimed at getting reelected. Even senators, who have a tenure of six years, complain of the debilitating effect of constant campaigning, which erodes time and energy.
Perhaps the biggest impact on Congress's work is the rising tide since World War II of special-interest groups capable of influencing public policy. Legislators today are bombarded by thousands of single-issue groups - environmental, consumer, business, trade, farm, labor, professional, educational - competing with each other and seeking government favors. The number of registered lobbyists in Washington has grown from 365 in 1960 to more than 7,000, and there are thousands more not registered.
These special interests exert power in Congress by dispensing campaign cash through political-action committees (PACs). In the 1986 elections PACs contributed more than $106 million to congressional and Senate candidates - 30 percent more than in 1984.
``The Founding Fathers would be aghast at the money in the system,'' Mr. Mathias says. PAC contributions do not necessarily buy a legislator's vote. But ``you won't turn away a PAC contributor from the outer office,'' he remarks.
J. William Fulbright, who served in the Senate for 30 years, says he is outraged at the impact of money on US defense policy. ``So much money gets through the Pentagon,'' he comments, ``and so much ends up with the contractors, who use the PAC device to support whomever they will.''
Not everyone agrees that PACs unduly influence public policy. Members of Congress vow they are not swayed by PAC contributions. And some scholars suggest that the competition of pressure groups is healthy even if it has complicated Congress's work.
``It's natural for politicians to do things to benefit their constituencies,'' says Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute. ``But [General Motors] is listened to not because of the campaign dollars. There was more direct corruption and bribery 50 to 100 years ago.''
James Madison in fact foresaw the ``mischiefs of factions'' and so wrote into the Constitution the checks and balances that would prevent any one ``faction'' from dominating another. ``The plan has worked well,'' says consultant Busby.
Further affecting the work of Congress are the high cost of campaigning and the growing influence of television in getting reelected. TV can make an instant celebrity of a lawmaker. But campaigns that used to cost less than $50,000 can now run over $3 million. The bill to elect the current 100th Congress reached $450 million. Sen. Alan Cranston of California spent almost $11 million to keep his seat in Congress.
Members of Congress thus either have to be millionnaires or devote more and more energy and time to fund raising and public relations. Getting reelected is imperative `WE could do the work in much less time, but everyone's maneuvering for the evening news,'' says Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas.
In the opinion of longtime lawmakers, the imperative to get reelected has skewed the basic function of Congress: to enact laws in the national rather than local interest.
Former Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona has written: ``If there's a big difference in the Congress of today and 30, 35 years ago when I came here, it's in the fact that the average member of Congress today puts more importance on his district or his state than he does on his country.''
Whether the present congressional system, with all its delays, redundancies, and micromanagement, serves the national interest is a matter of debate. Some academics and former high officials call for reforms to overcome stalemate. Such reforms include extending representatives' terms to four years and making their terms concurrent with that of the president; requiring a president to choose some Cabinet members from among his party's members in Congress; establishing a two-year instead of one-year budget and appropriations cycle; and electing a party's presidential and congressional candidates as a team.
In the wake of the Iran arms scandal, which involved the failure of executive officials to notify Congress of the shipment of arms to Iran as required by US law, some reform advocates point to a need to restore shared responsibility between the president and the members of his own party in the legislature. This link is seen to be impaired by the sheer size of committee staffs.
``Lawmakers and the president spend so much time with their own staffs that they spend little time with one another,'' says Lloyd N. Cutler, chairman of the Committee on the Constitutional System, a private reform group. ``It's very difficult for the president to confer confidentially, because of all the leaks from staff members.''
One solution, says Mr. Cutler, is to ``downsize everything.'' Many members of Congress agree that reducing the number of committees and subcommittees would ease the work load.
Rep. Don Edwards of California complains that legislators are constantly running home to their districts on the weekend, in effect reducing the time for roll calls to three days. ``Without a five-day week we can't caucus, reach any real party loyalty, or communicate with each other,'' he laments. Despite all, achievements
UNLESS there are some changes, reform proponents say, Congress will continue to experience gridlock. Above all, there is concern that the Congress has abdicated two of its chief functions - the power to declare war and to raise money - to the president.
``If there is any one thing the Founding Fathers were committed to, it was that no one man should be able to take this regime to war,'' says David L. Robinson, a scholar at Smith College.
``They were above all afraid of the war powers of the monarchy. Yet since World War II we have gone to war on the president's authority.''
But some analysts worry that the War Powers Resolution unduly ties a president's hands. ``If you take it literally, it could create a nightmare for the president and the country,'' says Louis W. Koenig, professor emeritus of New York University. ``I'm thinking, for example, of when the troops are out there in some hostility or emergency situation. The War Powers Resolution could prove to be very irresponsible.''
Reformers also point to the Gramm-Rudman budget-balance law as the lame result of divided government. ``It was a formal admission of impasse,'' comments Dr. Ladd. ``The President and Congress in effect said, `We cannot [balance the budget] because of separation of powers, and therefore we're looking for some device to overcome an institution-related problem.'''
But, Ladd says, Congress will act when it becomes clear what will happen as a result of the deficits. ``If there were a knowledge of the result there would be been a correction,'' he says.
For all the frustrations, Congress has chalked up impressive achievements in two centuries. Even the just-ended 99th Congress - contentious, politically divided, and often appearing to careen out of control - ended with a solid record of accomplishment. Though often at loggerheads with President Reagan, it overhauled the tax code, adopted a sweeping immigration law, strengthened environmental protections, imposed new limits on spending to help bring the federal deficit under control, and approved a massive program to combat drugs.
Few would deny that the independence and the rivalry of Congress and the president often lead to impasse. But in the view of many analysts, that is preferable to unwise and hasty action - especially before a public consensus has emerged.
``The Congress was not created to be efficient,'' says Dr. Ornstein. ``The whole system is established to create tension between representativeness and efficiency.... We are not stalemated, and the need is to build more consensus.'' Next: The power of judicial review Further reading: ``Kings of the Hill,'' by Richard B. Cheney and Lynne V. Cheney: Continuum (1983). ``Politics and Money,'' by Elizabeth Drew: Macmillan Publishing Company (1983). ``The New Congress,'' by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein: American Enterprise Institute (1981). ``The Decline and Resurgence of Congress,'' by James L. Sundquist: The Brookings Institution (1981).