Caught in Red Tape? Who Ya Gonna Call? Congress!

But lawmakers' stress on constituent service comes under fire from critics who say they should stick to writing laws

A VIRGINIA woman had paid all her federal taxes, but the government was not satisfied. Another payment was demanded. Months went by. More demands. Finally, the government levied her bank account.

What to do? The woman, who lived in Virginia's 10th Congressional District, called Rep. Frank Wolf, a Republican. Representative Wolf, whose staff is renowned for its effective service, put Judith McCary on the job.

Mrs. McCary, Wolf's director of constituent services, finally solved the problem. "It's a big government," she says. "These things happen. We eventually got this lady's account straight. IRS [Internal Revenue Service] apologized to her in a letter."

Wolf's action saved his constituent much grief, but it probably also achieved something else dear to the hearts of congressmen: It ensured him her future support in elections.

Congress now employs thousands of case workers like McCary to help voters with a daunting array of problems. Just call, and your local congressman or senator can help you, among other things:

* Replace a lost Social Security check.

* Wrestle with the immigration bureaucracy.

* Solve problems with the Veterans Administration.

* Prevent injustice at the hands of the tax collector.

Critics say there's just one thing wrong with Congress's current system of super-service for the voters. It's not really Congress's job.

David Mason, a congressional expert at the Heritage Foundation, says all this fussing over voters' personal problems is distracting Congress - and diverting it from its primary task.

Mr. Mason says Congress really has only one job: Passing good laws.

He explains: "A lot of the work Congress does is not legislation. [Yet its] unique constitutional responsibility is obviously making laws. To the extent that they get away from that, or get distracted by other things, Congress is less efficient, and people are less well represented."

Mason's arguments are hard to sell to McCary, however. During Wolf's 12 years on Capitol Hill, McCary estimates his office has dealt with 80,000 cases. That's 80,000 people, most of them voters, all of them with wives or husbands or children or friends, which means Wolf's constituent offices have touched the lives of just about everyone in his area of northern Virginia.

"You try hard, you don't turn people down, even on long shots," McCary says. "People just want us to care about their life.... The government is big. We cut through the red tape."

Mason turns that argument on its head, however. Instead of cutting red tape, Congress should be getting rid of the red tape - by passing better laws, he says.

As Mason puts it: "A lot of the ... problems that people complain about are created by Congress. In fact, bad laws get congressmen reelected. They pass a bad law, and the regulations are stupid, or inconsistent, or whatever, and people have to come to them for help."

Last year, 4,500 people in Wolf's district did just that. They called him about problems with immigration (one-third of all cases), government contracting, lost government checks, appointments to the military academies.

A couple of years ago, there was even a problem with a missing airplane. The small aircraft had crashed in the Virginia mountains. Six people were aboard, including five men from Wolf's district. Searchers couldn't find the wreckage in the heavy forest.

"The families were very upset," McCary recalls. So Wolf himself got involved. He called the Department of Defense and persuaded them to send up a helicopter with heat-sensing capability to look for the plane. "That's how they found it," she says.

Then there was the recent case of the immigrant mother who had a baby in Fairfax County, Va. She took her new baby to Ukraine to show the baby's grandmother. But while there, the baby's limited passport expired. State Department officials, suspicious, refused to renew the passport, so the mother and child were stranded in Kiev.

At that point, Wolf's office interceded. Birth certificates were produced. A few weeks later, mother and child were home for Valentine's Day.

"We have made a great difference in people's lives," McCary says. "We were able to help them in their time of need, and do it quickly, because we have the phone numbers, we have the contacts."

Mason responds: "I respect these people [who work for Wolf], but ultimately they are not really solving the problems they are working on. That is one of the basic flaws in the system. It is true that this work creates goodwill for Wolf. Incompetent bureaucrats help Wolf to get reelected. That is not a good incentive to have. It is a perverse incentive."

The two positions presented by Mason and McCary are now being sorted through by the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress. Its members are trying to decide: Should constituent services be curtailed? Should congressional staffs be reduced? Could constituent services be handled more efficiently by a centralized staff on Capitol Hill?

In Wolf's case, six of his 18 staff members are devoted to constituent services. In the Senate, members may have 10, 15, or even more aides (in the very large states) working on such problems. Sen. Harris Wofford (D) of Pennsylvania, for example, has 18 case workers, each of whom is handling about 250 constituency problems at a time.

McCary says such work is priceless in this era of big, complicated government. Someone needs to help citizens deal with powerful bureaucrats, she argues.

But Mason doesn't buy it.

"That kind of service does nothing to address the underlying problem," he says. "Government is huge and terrifying and Congress ought to do something about that, not [just] ameliorating some of the worst characteristics of a fundamentally bad system."

He concludes: "If bureaucracies are frightening and unapproachable, they should be reformed."

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