Republicans Put Congress On Rations
WASHINGTON — FOR sale: Large ashen office building. Easy access to railroad and highway. Brisk walk to Capitol. Made strong to house heavy materials such as FBI fingerprint records.
'Tis the season for congressional reform, and House Republicans are trimming everything but the national Christmas tree. They are slashing staff, committees, and caucuses. Annex No. 2, one of five House office buildings, could be emptied and sold.
Republicans have also approved a roll call's worth of measures that could usher in the most dramatic changes in procedure and structure in half a century. Speaker-in-waiting Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia and his team are striving to shrink government, make the legislative process more open and deliberative, and transfer power back to the states.
``We adopted a rules structure that makes us capable of more central leadership and more team leadership than we've had probably since [Nicholas] Longworth,'' says Mr. Gingrich, referring to the Republican Speaker in the 1920s.
But some of the moves are more symbol than substance, and students of Congress worry the new majority is not taking full advantage of the historic opportunity they now hold.
``We're seeing significant change, but there was an opportunity to go further,'' says Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
After 40 years of uninterrupted Democratic rule in the House, the legislative process, by all accounts, had become bogged down in a network of power centers. Committee chairmen had become entrenched. Institutional reform was nearly impossible. Bills and amendments were crafted in back rooms. Debate on the floor was restricted.
In a three-day caucus this week, House Republicans began to remove those institutional barriers. They backed open legislative rules that allow members to offer amendments on the floor. They also intend to pass the Shays Act, a bill left over from the last session that would require Congress to abide by the laws it passes for the rest of the country.
Committee heads, now limited to six-year term limits, will no longer be able to build fiefdoms such as those of Democrats Dan Rostenkowski in the Ways and Means or John Dingall in Energy and Commerce. They will also lose power with a ban on proxy voting, which allowed them to cast votes for absent members. Power becomes more centralized under the Speaker.
The Republicans also plan to cut three standing committees, 25 subcommittees, one-third of the congressional staff, and 28 member caucuses known as legislative service organizations, which have offices, staffs, and budgets. Legislation will be referred to only one primary committee, and members will be allowed a limited number of committee assignments to promote better attendance.
``It's unbelievable,'' says Mickey Edwards, a former Republican member of Congress who is now teaching at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. ``The changes reshape the way Congress operates and reassert the dominant role of Congress in the federal scheme. The open process lets people ... duke it out on the floor.''
But some of the reforms may come back to frustrate the people proposing them, critics say.
Gingrich has promised that the House will vote on all 10 proposals in his ``Contract With America'' in the first 100 days of the new Congress. The open rules, which are to be be formally adopted by a House vote on Jan. 4, will allow the Democrats to tie up debate on the floor. In order to keep his schedule, Gingrich may ultimately have to restrict amendments and floor debate.
The GOP is planning to cut three minor standing committees that have Democratic constituencies. And it is cutting back the jurisdiction of the powerhouse Energy and Commerce Committee, which gets its hands on 40 percent of all legislation.
But they had plans to do a lot more. Rep. David Dreier (R) of California, who is overseeing the committee restructuring, submitted at least four proposals to significantly overhaul the system. Sources say large committees such as Ways and Means and Budget would have undergone jurisdictional changes. Others, such as Small Business, would have been cut altogether.
Mr. Ornstein, who has testified before Mr. Dreier's working group, speculates that Gingrich backed away from broader changes to avoid battles with senior Republicans and the key small-business constituency.
Gingrich maintains there were legitimate reasons for limiting the reforms. ``Small business is the heart of job creation in America,'' he says. ``The Budget committee is at the center of what we're going to do in the next five years.... The Ways and Means committee has been the tax-writing committee since 1789.''
Whether or not the reforms lead to smaller government or less spending, congressional experts like Ornstein say that what matters most is that the institution will operate closer to the Framers' intentions.