Facing Criticism, Congress Tries To Reform Itself
Some frustrated lawmakers leave jobs, while new initiatives are proposed
WASHINGTON — WITH public approval of Congress at an all-time low, even the members themselves are fed up with the institution.
Some are retiring in frustration. Others are sticking around to try to rebuild a legislature that has grown muscle-bound with too many committees and flabby with perks that members suddenly say they don't want or need.
"I have never seen more senators express discontent with their jobs," Sen. John Danforth (R) of Missouri told his colleagues in the wake of Republican Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hamphire's announcement that he is retiring. (Candidates vie for open seat, Page 9.)
Echoing Senator Rudman, Senator Danforth ascribes the discontent to a feeling that Congress has failed the people on a vital issue: the budget deficit. "Deep down in our hearts we know that we have bankrupted America and that we have given our children a legacy of bankruptcy," he says.
"People are very depressed," says Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) of California. "I will tell you, many times lately I've thought about ditching this and going surfing for the rest of my life."
Last week, both houses launched initiatives aimed at reforming the way Congress works and at saving incumbents' jobs. One of the initiatives establishes a bipartisan 16-member House task force. It will make recommendations by Easter on elimination of perks and on setting up a more professional operation of House services, which were found lacking at the bank, post office, and restaurants.
The House bank has already been closed. Speaker Tom Foley (D) of Washington has announced other changes: no more free prescription drugs for House members and low fees at the House gym.
Another initiative launched last week is a Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress. Both houses will vote soon to establish the committee, which will look at the big picture of how Congress works. The group will consist of four senators and four representatives from each party, plus four advisers from the private sector. It will begin work in January.
"Essentially I believe we have a system that minimizes the opportunity to be courageous. It diminishes the opportunity to lead and clearly it wilts the will power - too many committees, overlapping jurisdiction, complicated bills that have to go to four or five committees," says Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico.
In a current example, he says, a comprehensive package to establish the relationship between the former Soviet Union and the United States over the next eight to 10 years would have to go through five Senate committees.
"Now, there isn't any chance of passing such a bill and having it meaningful," says Senator Domenici.
On the perks question, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine has already removed some privileges and is looking at others. Gone are the fixing of parking tickets, cheap haircuts, and a Senate car wash.
Two other bids to salvage Congress's image surfaced last week. Campaign finance reform, stuck in staff conference since both houses passed bills last year, is suddenly getting attention from members themselves and will likely reach the floor next week.
In the House, Rep. George Gekas (R) of Pennsylvania introduced a bill to close a loophole that would allow members who were elected before 1980 and retire before 1993 to keep at least some of their leftover campaign cash.
Congressman Gekas would require that the money be turned over to the US Treasury.
For Speaker Foley, there's more on the line than Congress's image. His own leadership position is jeopardy. Many members, fearful for their jobs, are angry that Foley did not act sooner to clean up the House bank.
Working to Foley's advantage is the fact that his colleagues like him. But if enough momentum picks up for his ouster, as members try to show their voters that Congress has mended its ways, Foley could be sacrificed.
"On or off the record, I'd say Foley has 30 days to show what he can do with reforms," says Rep. Dennis Eckart (D) of Ohio, who is retiring to spend more time with his family.
Representative Eckart's decision to leave Congress, like Rep. Brian Donnelly (D) of Massachusetts, is emblematic of another side of Congress.
All the bluster about congressmen living the high life on taxpayer money has obscured the fact that membership wreaks havoc on family life.
Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut commutes weekly between family at home and work in Washington. Though running for reelection, he says he's not sure how long he can keep up the pace.
"When I first started (in 1987), I thought if I could keep being reelected, I'd serve a good number of years," Representative Shays says. "But with every year, my estimate goes down."