FORMER President Nixon looked with amazement around the heavily staffed congressional offices on Capitol Hill.
"I can't believe it," Mr. Nixon told a fellow Republican, Rep. David Dreier of California, during a visit two years ago. Recalling his own days as a young congressman back in the 1940s, Nixon said:
"When I was here, we had two secretaries and one man."
In 1993, "two secretaries and one man" would not be enough personal staff for even the lowliest freshman congressman on Capitol Hill. Every member of the House of Representatives now is entitled to 18 full-time and four part-time staffers.
That's not all. If you're a ranking member who runs a big committee, you could have dozens more congressional employees directly beholden to you for their jobs.
All this empire-building now has come under fire. With President Clinton slashing his own White House staff by 25 percent, pressure is building on Congress to prune its multibillion-dollar army of bureaucrats.
Rep. Michael Castle (R) of Delaware, a freshman member, declares after looking around Capitol Hill for a few weeks: "Some congressional downsizing is sorely needed." `Too many committees'
Representative Castle's view is shared by many Democrats. Rep. Dave McCurdy (D) of Oklahoma says: "We simply have too many committees with too much staff for 435 members of the House to capably manage. In fact, they manage us."
Representative Dreier, another critic of overstaffing, has held his personal staff down to 12 employees, 10 below the maximum - both to save money, and for smoother operations.
"I get along beautifully," he says.
But on most of Capitol Hill, building a big staff is the rule. And the impact is enormous.
During the past four decades, Congress has approved an exponential growth of staff for both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
It was not always this way. In fact, through most of its history, Congress was a lean organization.
In 1947, after helping America fight a world war, successfully guiding the nation through its worst-ever Depression, and launching major reforms such as Social Security, the Senate had a staff of just 590 employees. The House had 1,440. That was the Congress that Nixon knew.
Today, staff size has mushroomed thirteenfold to 7,620 employees in the Senate, and multiplied over eight times in the House to 12,446.
And that's not all.
There are also 5,274 people working for the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress; 5,033 employed at the Library of Congress; and 4,910 at Congress's Government Printing Office. More than 38,000 workers
With numerous other smaller legislative offices, Congress now employs 38,509 people, including 224 at the Congressional Budget Office, 53 at the Botanic Garden, and 11 at the National Commission to Prevent Infant Mortality.
This legion of congressional workers, which has made necessary the construction of new marble office buildings such as the Rayburn and the Hart, has brought problems of its own - though there is disagreement about what should be done about them.
Most political scientists regarded a very large, competent staff on Capitol Hill as a positive step.
Other analysts, and many congressmen, now see serious drawbacks. Speaking of the House's 12,000 workers, Dreier says: "They are falling all over each other.... The existence of so much staff creates problems."
However, political scientist Thomas Mann at the Brookings Institution urges caution before reformers like Dreier start cutting staff. Dr. Mann and a colleague, Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, are conducting the Renewing Congress Project, a two-year study of ideas to improve the legislative branch.
In their first report, issued in November, Mann and Dr. Ornstein concede that slashing staff aggressively plays well with frustrated voters. They admit that an "across-the-board cut in staffs" is "simple" and "popular."
But they warn: "The issue of staffing is more complex. It goes far beyond questions of size and cost to broader issues: how staff are allocated, how they are used, and how professionalized they are. Indeed, to questions of ... whether we are willing to damage some basic functions to achieve other, currently popular goals." Senator advocates reduction
The Mann-Ornstein approach seems tepid to some who are deeply involved in the day-to-day functions and problems of Congress.
Sen. David Boren (D) of Oklahoma would like to see a one-third reduction in staffing. He says Congress would work better, money would be saved, and members would be more effective.
Senator Boren is co-chairman, along with Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana, of the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress. Theirs is a one-year effort to reform the way Capitol Hill works.
Boren, a former political science professor, says some of those old-college theories about Congress, including the value of more committees and more staff, do not work so well in the real world of Washington.
"It's the opposite," Boren explains. "You reach a point of diminishing returns."