Fewer Committees, Other Reforms Urged for Congress

THE real reason Washington has not gotten much done in recent years is government gridlock: The Republican president and the Democratic Congress could not work together.

Now that the Democrats have captured the White House, this line of reasoning goes, legislation will flow smoothly through Congress. Therefore, a major reform of the way the legislature works is not so urgent after all, at least not until one-party rule is given a shot.

Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein respectfully disagree.

Such a sentiment, anticipated by these two leading congressional scholars as they release their first in a series of reports on "Renewing Congress," reflects a misguided notion of what makes government effective, they say.

"If American government is to work well, it needs a strong, active, assertive president and an equally strong, active, and assertive Congress," says Mr. Mann, a Brookings Institution fellow.

This will be especially crucial at the outset of the Clinton administration, when fast action on the president's program may well depend on the ability of the House of Representatives to set an agenda and then carry it out, the report notes.

Americans' frustration with Congress, which has deteriorated from a "healthy skepticism" to "corrosive cynicism," also makes action necessary, write Mann and Mr. Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Congress's problems are legion: legislation going through too many committees; long periods of inaction, punctuated by bursts of activity in which important legislation often gets scuttled; too many committee assignments; weak party leaders; a tendency toward cheap political shots; and not enough serious deliberation on important issues of the day.

The drumbeat for reform has been building all year, and Mann and Ornstein's first report, which focuses on the House, will add to the dialogue. Some of their proposals jibe with those put out by the Democratic Caucus Committee on Organization, Study, and Review (OSR), which are expected to be approved when the Democratic members of the new House gather next month.

One of OSR's big proposals is elimination of 17 subcommittees, more than 10 percent of the total. According to OSR, this move is designed to boost efficiency and curtail the proliferation of independent power centers. OSR is also proposing creation of a Democratic Policy Council, appointed by the Speaker, to develop a legislative agenda early in each session and, it is hoped, avoid the end-of-session crunch.

"This is the best time for reform," says Rep. Louise Slaughter (D) of New York, chairwoman of OSR. "Because of the large turnover, there are not as many people with vested interests." (The incoming freshman class, with 110 members, is the largest since 1948.)

OSR and the Mann-Ornstein report also propose ways to remove committee and subcommittee chairmen who prove "recalcitrant," as Ms. Slaughter puts it. OSR would grant that power to the majority caucus, while Mann and Ornstein propose that it belong to the Speaker, who they believe needs greater authority.

Another area of agreement is the need to cut members' workloads. Mann and Ornstein suggest limiting House members to two committees and four subcommittees, and eliminating "select" committees (such as those on aging and hunger) - an idea that has met vigorous opposition from interest groups.

OSR wants to limit members to no more than five subcommittees and make membership on a task force or select committee count toward that total. Such a proposal may avoid a politically problematic move to cut the "selects" outright, because as representatives apportion their memberships, some select committees may vanish anyway due to low interest.

Mann and Ornstein scold the House leadership for being "risk averse," saying they have often failed to use powers they already have, such as creating ad hoc committees to deal with pressing matters.

OSR, the Mann-Ornstein project, and other groups working on reform proposals are all a prelude to the main event: the bipartisan Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, which will begin its work with hearings early in the next session.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.