Citizens' Legislature: New Idea for Congress?

New proposal would have Congress in session for six months, halve members' pay and staff, and allow outside jobs. VOTER DISTRUST

CALL it the new New Federalism.

Public confidence in Washington has been muffler-scraping low for awhile, but now the drive to roll back federal power is gaining momentum.

Prospective 1996 presidential candidate Lamar Alexander is taking the campaigner's customary contempt for Congress further than usual.

Last weekend, he finished a two-month, 36-state tour in his Ford Explorer. His main applause line? ''Cut their pay and send them home.''

Mr. Alexander - former two-term Tennessee governor, US secretary of education, and university president - is not prone to cheap shots. He is propounding the radical notion of returning Congress to its part-time, citizen legislature roots.

''I have been startled by the depth and breadth of the antagonism against the government in Washington, D.C.,'' he says in an interview over his car phone from California. ''It's not just government, but Washington D.C.''

That popular sentiment toward federal power, which is reflected in polls as well, is echoed on a more elite level by many governors and state legislators.

In fact, the state politicians are working out an action plan this fall for rolling back federal power and reasserting the 10th Amendment of the Constitution, which establishes states' rights.

Congress on a diet?

A growing group of politicians, led by Gov. Mike Leavitt (R) of Utah, are promoting a Conference of the States next year to endorse a plan for stronger state power.

Both Gov. Leavitt and Alexander are arguing, separately, that highly centralized national power is increasingly obsolete in a fast and flexible ''information age.''

The problem, from the viewpoint of state politicians, is that even though the federal government is broke, it keeps increasing regulatory demands and centralizing control.

Leavitt believes the Constitution created a balance of power between the federal government and the states that has been tilting toward the national government for the past century.

''There continues to be a strong appetite on the part of Congress to deal with issues from Washington,'' says Mr. Leavitt.

States need to have some way of curbing that appetite because - ''and here's the bottom line,'' he says - Congress simply cannot manage all that it wants to take on as its own.

The steps that Leavitt foresees would probably begin with legislation that restricts the ability of Congress to enact one of its most detested practices, the unfunded mandate.

These are requirements from clean water standards to wheelchair accessibility that Congress sets and that state and local governments must fund.

Some state pols are also looking for a good test case to strengthen the court backing of the 10th Amendment, which has been increasingly neglected. As a last resort, says Leavitt, is the possibility of a Constitutional convention to add amendments that would shore up state power.

''At this point in time, a Constitutional convention is extreme,'' he says.

It is not clear how many of his fellow governors support an assertive course of action, but both the National Governors' Association and the National Conference of State Legislators unanimously endorsed the working up of an action plan at their annual meetings this year. From surveys at national meetings, says Leavitt, ''I can tell you that there's not a governor [who] doesn't list [the overreaching of federal power] as one of their top priorities.''

The centralizing of national power took a great leap forward with the reforms of the Progressive era in the early 20th century intended to clean up corruption and professionalize government bureaucracies.

It then leapt much further with the New Deal response to the Depression and the buildup for World War II. The next great centralizing era was during the '60s Great Society programs.

State governments found it hard to resist federal programs, no matter how many strings were attached, when they carried millions of dollars.

Two major drives have attempted to roll back federal power. One was the States' Rights movement in the '40s and '50s, mainly Southern and anti-civil rights. It failed, says Leavitt, because it did not acknowledge the legitimate role of federal power.

''We need a very strong national government,'' he says, but adds: ''The states have done an inadequate job of holding up our end of the competitive balance.''

The other serious assault on federal power was Ronald Reagan's New Federalism. Its impact was not to roll back federal control, but to roll back federal funding. Revenue sharing with state and local governments shrank. Up to that point, says John Shannon, a scholar at the Urban Institute and a former city, state, and federal official, ''the national government was looked on as the great candy store.''

Since then, Congress has remained activist by mandating actions and leaving it to lower levels of government to raise money.

The crime bill, just passed by both chambers of Congress last month, is largely a throwback to the '60s, says Dr. Shannon, in that it delivers a pot of money to state and local agencies while directing them how to use it.

Lamar Alexander's proposal, like Leavitt's, is to cut back on the intrusions into American life by the federal government. He would have Congress in session only six months of the year, he would cut their pay, and the ranks of congressional staff, in half. He would also loosen the rules to allow members of Congress to hold jobs in their home districts, while still fully disclosing their incomes and its sources.

This would force Congress to act on fewer, more carefully chosen issues, he argues.

Alexander was a legislative analyst in the late 1960s for then-Sen. Howard Baker (R) of Tennessee, so he knows the institution from the inside. ''Some of these senior chairmen have 200 lawyers working for them, which is ridiculous,'' he says.

The idea is not taken very seriously in Washington. Former Rep. Mickey Edwards, an Oklahoma Republican defeated in 1992 who now teaches at Harvard, calls it ''one of the silliest ideas I've ever heard.'' Then he corrects himself to call it a ''scary'' idea.

Critics deride idea

Far from weakening the federal government, says Mr. Edwards, Alexander's citizen legislature idea would centralize it further. The President and the huge bureaucracy of the executive branch would have dramatically less competition from Congress.

''The way you control federal power is by keeping it in the hands of the people's representatives who have to go back and be re-elected every two years,'' he says. A Clinton-style health-care bill, for example, would be law now under Alexander's proposal, Edwards speculates.

The rolling-back of federal power is clearly more popular among Republicans, but it has substantial Democratic support as well.

The dismal level of confidence in the federal government certainly prepares the ground. A recent Gallup Poll found that 18 percent of the public said they had confidence in Congress.

But ultimately, says John Walters, president of Citizens for a Republican Future, public sentiment will have to shift toward accepting that many important issues do not belong with Congress or the president.

''Ultimately, Americans are probably going to have to be a little more interested in their politics,'' he says, because state and local government will need more attention.

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