Congress at a crossroads. Lawmakers face larger workloads and sharper confrontations as their roles evolve

In the last in a 10-part series, the Monitor's congressional correspondent examines the changes and challenges that will face the US Congress in the years to come. Here's a story told on Capitol Hill. There was this congressman who asked a group of Cub Scouts if they could explain the difference between the United States Congress and the Cub Scouts. A few seconds of uneasy silence ensued before one piped up, ``We have adult supervision.''

The story is surely apocryphal. The sentiment expressed in its retelling is not. Congress has never gotten a lot of respect, least of all from the very lawmakers who work so hard to get sent there.

Yet rarely have so many members of Congress voiced so many frustrations about the institution in which they serve. And never have they had so many responsibilities to shoulder.

As a result, Congress is in the midst of a period of change as far-reaching as any in recent history, one that to a great extent will determine how this country will be run through the 1990s and into the next century.

But it is not the sort of change of which headlines are easily written. In the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate scandals, lawmakers instituted a series of changes that transformed venerable congressional practices and shifted the balance of power from the executive to the legislative branches. That was revolutionary stuff, triggering furious debate and commanding great publicity.

Today's changes are more subtle, yet, at the same time, more inexorable.Many of them spring from those very changes wrought in the 1970s. An increase in congressional staff, for example, has brought lawmakers an enormous amount of ``in-house'' expertise. That expertise, in turn, has brought an increased tendency to confront the executive branch on matters of foreign and domestic policy that, in an earlier age, Congress would have left alone.

Other changes spring from larger factors. Consider, for example, the forces at work on the Senate.

The polarization of national party politics, the breakdown of party discipline, and the difficulties of dealing with budget deficits have affected both houses of Congress. But the influence of these developments is felt most dramatically in the Senate, where tradition and law provides members with considerably more individual latitude than in the House of Representatives.

Senior members express frustration over a breakdown in the Senate's famed comity. Newcomers express bewilderment at Senate rules, crafted for a more genteel age, that allow a determined minority to bring the US government to a virtual standstill.

Young and old alike fret that the Senate has degenerated from the legislative aristocracy envisioned by the founding fathers to something on the order of a raucus town council, where almost anything warrants furious debate and almost nothing gets done.

Many Senators have noted ruefully that recent wrangling between the Congress and the White House over contra aid excluded the Senate entirely: House leaders were able to combat the Reagan administration's contra aid proposal with a counter-proposal of their own; Senate leaders, on the other hand, were unable to get anything approaching a consensus.

Dozens of proposals have surfaced to streamline Senate procedures. A few would improve the ``quality of life'' of members, who complain the Senate's tumultuousness prevents them from enjoying any semblance of a normal existence. But those proposals seem unlikely to insulate the Senate from the conditions that have reduced its effectiveness in recent years. Ironically, many of the same developments that bedeviled the Senate have contributed to the House's recent rise in prestige and influence.

For more than a generation, Democrats have controlled the House and Republicans have been consigned to the status of ``permanent minority.'' The Democrats are likely to continue to dominate for some time, if only because of the dramatic expansion of perquisites - special interest money, staff help, and media attention - that accrue to incumbents.

During some of the highly charged confrontations of the Reagan era, Democratic leaders have become increasingly skilled at ``party politics'' - steamrolling Republican objections with an overwhelming Democratic majority. As a result, the House has become a place where Democratic policy positions are written into legislation, rather than a place where parties compete to elevate their ideas into law.

That makes the House a much more efficient place to legislate than the Senate and, indeed, as in the case of the contra aid debate, the House is increasingly assuming the policy making role once reserved largely for the other body.

But such efficiency has its price. The House minority is disaffected and, to a significant extent, embittered by what it sees as the Democratic leadership's hard-ball style of politicking. So they have pledged themselves to derailing the Democrats' agenda.

The result is conflict and confrontation that, all too often, has little to do with any real legislating. Last year, it took the House four hours to resolve a fight between Republicans and Democrats over whether or not it was time to go home.

This year, commentators marveled over the fact that Democrats and Republicans were able to vote together on a spending blueprint for the federal government; in previous years, such budget plans triggered searing partisan fights, although both sides ended up voting for budget plans.

When Ronald Reagan leaves town, will these sorts of battles subside? Many commentators argue that this is so. President Reagan brought with him to office a political agenda that was certain to ruffle feathers in Washington. A less ideologically charged presidency would help smooth relations between the branches and between parties.

But the tensions would still remain. ``I don't think this place will ever be peaceful,'' says Rep. Jamie Whitten (D) of Mississippi, the most senior member of Congress. ``That's not what it is about.''

Previous articles in this series ran on nine consecutive Fridays, beginning April 15.

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