The Invisible Government in Washington

JOHN MACK is almost a forgotten name. But it's still worth asking how a convicted felon was hired and became a key aide for House Majority Leader Jim Wright. Answer: Public funds were available, Congressman Wright wanted Mr. Mack and that was enough - as it is with the thousands of congressional staff who support their sponsors in their offices and on committees. These well-paid men and women are the most powerful and least accountable public servants who exercise dominion over us.

Unlike executive branch staff, to start work they don't pass an exam, compete with others for an opening, get involved with affirmative action, or meet security standards. To get promoted, they don't stand against other aspirants for a post.

Staffers draft the laws their bosses introduce, probe executive branch policies and actions, and push - formally and informally - for changes. Of course, the civics books tell us, they are accountable to their bosses who are accountable to the electorate. A staffer is out of work when his congressman is defeated. What Civics 101 doesn't tell us is that 90 percent of congressmen are reelected; their staffs stay on and on. And even when one is somehow cut adrift, experienced staff don't leave town. They quickly find another sponsor for an equivalent job.

As staffers acquire expertise and Capitol Hill street smarts, they become indispensable to their bosses, often more knowledgeable than members on technical matters. The congressman becomes a dependent. In fact, our legislative system works as well as it does because of the competence and dedication of some key committee staffers - generally, a different breed from those in a member's office.

Truly, congressional staff are our invisible governors. Yet virtually no constituent knows who his representative has running committees. Nor does anyone - often not even members - follow a staffer's work in detail. They rarely appear on TV interviews. You see them in the background of hearings, feeding questions to their bosses. Only their counterparts in the executive branch who must respond to their demands know how they perform - how intelligently or selfishly, how much in the narrow interest of the congressman or the larger interests of the nation.

Whether or not one approves of Lt. Col. Oliver North's dealing with the US Congress, it is a fact that his suspicion and hostility toward adversaries on Capitol Hill are found in all executive agencies. The abiding and mutual disrespect between Hill and executive staff poisons government. While most staffers on both sides are, happily, not freewheelers like Colonel North, a few Hill staffers are indeed uncelebrated backroom Ollies.

Some months ago a group of House staffers went off to Baghdad to meet with representatives of the PLO. Any State Department employee's career would have been destroyed by the same action. Did any of them suffer at the hand of an outraged media? Of course not. Any savvy journalist who wants to lacerate an administration knows the best source of leaks is the staff on the Hill.

Without question, the executive branch needs regularly to be reined in by Congress. Equally obvious is the fact that overburdened members cannot perform their legislative and oversight functions without adequate staff support. That accounts, in part, for the tremendous growth in staff during the last 25 years.

The issue is not whether Congress should be supported by a large staff, but how large and for how much money. Congress votes its funding without serious executive branch input and sets staff pay without uniform standards. The present system cries out for reasonable rules - to be written by an independent body - on salaries, employee numbers, and on what should be supported. A clear line ought to be established between those staffers who are doing the nation's business on committees, drafting legislation, or monitoring the executive, and those whose primary responsibility is to get the sponsor reelected. They ought to be paid out of different appropriations - if the political types should be paid by the public at all.

More important than control of numbers and functions is the need for uniformity in hiring and promotion practices across government. Congressional staffers should take an examination that evaluates ability and experience just as executive branch personnel do. It is absurd that security and affirmative action requirements are not uniform. Or that conflict of interest and post-employment rules are not equally applied to congressional and executive branch personnel.

American government has grown far too large and unresponsive. The budget crunch is helping to make the executive lean and healthy. It is high time Congress put its own sprawling, unaccountable, and ill-kept House and Senate in order.

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