Changing How Congress Runs Itself Tops the Republicans' 1995 Agenda

NOW that Republicans are taking over Capitol Hill, their vow is not just to seek lower taxes and resume work on a strategic-missile defense system. All that will come soon enough.

Before transforming what it does, the new barons of the Capitol grounds want to change the ways and means of how Congress operates.

In doing so, they would give away some of their own new-found institutional power almost as soon as they get it.

But now that the election is over, Republicans have shown every sign of following through on their pledges. Many expect that Republican leader Newt Gingrich of Georgia - certain to be House Speaker next year - will stay with his winning game plan even if it contains some self-sacrifice.

``It will be easier for Gingrich to keep moral leadership if he gives up some of the inherent powers'' of his position, says Jeffrey Bell, a Republican strategist and economic forecaster in Washington.

As the elections drew closer this year, the technicians who monitor and analyze voter sentiment in both parties were increasingly convinced that voter discontent was focused directly on the way that Congress does business.

Even the early October rise in President Clinton's approval rating, according to his pollster Stanley Greenberg, was partly due to Congress going home. Viewers were spared the unsavory sight of them in action.

Many political consultants now believe that when the voters sought change in 1992, they not only wanted policy change ``but a fundamental change and reform of Congress,'' says Republican campaign adviser Bill McInturff.

So on the first day of the new Congress in January, the Republican leadership-in-waiting has vowed to cut committee staffs by a third, reduce the number of committees and subcommittees, apply laws to themselves that Congress applies to the rest of the country, open committee meetings to the public, require a three-fifths majority for tax increases, and more.

Term-limit vote

Then comes a much more fundamental matter: Republicans have pledged to bring a constitutional amendment limiting members of Congress to three terms in the House and two in the Senate to a vote in the first 100 days.

If such an amendment were to become law, it would bar the new Republican leaders from ever establishing the deeply rooted seniority-based power that has always been strong in Congress. But so be it, Mr. Gingrich says.

``The long experiment in professional politicians and professional government is over, and it failed,'' he told an audience in Washington Friday.

Perhaps the most direct hand-off of power would be giving the president a line-item veto. This would allow a president to single out a program or line of spending from a budget bill before signing it, rather than approve or veto the entire budget. Republicans, when they were the minority in Congress and held the presidency, promoted it as a way of strengthening the White House and cutting spending.

Now that Republicans control Congress and a Democrat is in the White House, Gingrich is holding to his view. ``We as Republican conservatives are prepared to give President Clinton a line-item veto,'' he says.

``That gives a great deal of power to the president,'' says Congress expert Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. It allows the president to do the kind of horse-trading over budget items that is now the prerogative of appropriations committee chairmen. In fact, says Dr. Ornstein, ``It's more a transfer of power than a tool of fiscal discipline.''

Most of the commitment to internal reforms of Congress come from Republican House members. The new leaders of the Senate have been more ambiguous in what reform they will embrace.

While Gingrich has built his career on challenging the status quo on Capitol Hill with ideological bombshells, the probable next Senate majority leader, Robert Dole of Kansas, is more of a master manipulator of the system who is less interested in ideology.

The 1996 factor

But Mr. Dole is also considering running for president in 1996, a task that would begin almost immediately. This might steer him away from blocking popular proposals such as term limits.

In the House, Republicans are seeking to make it a more open, less hierarchical place. Gingrich promises to bring the 10 legislative items on the Republican ``Contract with America'' to vote under a so-called open rule. That means that any Congress member can offer any amendment when each bill comes to the floor. The Democratic leadership often limited amendments that could be offered before voting.

The Republican caucus is not giving up much, in a way. More than half of the GOP House members next January will have two years or less seniority.

And the staff cuts will not be too painful, since Republican staff levels can still grow while deep trims come out of Democratic staffs as they move to minority status.

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