Caucus Cuts Deny Free Assembly

THE new Republican majority in Congress has pledged itself to far-reaching reforms, not just in the laws it wants to pass, but in the rules that govern Congress itself. Some of these ideas are good, promoting openness and democracy, such as limiting the terms of committee chairs to six years and banning closed committee hearings except when confidential matters of national security or law enforcement are discussed.

But one ``reform'' throws the baby out with the bathwater. The Republican move to eliminate funding for the congressional Black Caucus and other legislative service organizations (LSOs) attacks groups that help Congress function more efficiently, thoughtfully, openly, and democratically. It also attacks the members' First Amendment right of assembly: ``Congress shall make no law abridging the right of the people peaceably to assemble.''

Republican strategists argue this is not the case, that only abolishing LSOs would violate the right of assembly. This argument depends on a misleading view of the First Amendment. But no one believes that freedom of religion is limited to a formal guarantee of freedom in one's individual beliefs. Rather, it's a ``robust'' guarantee that includes the freedom to effectively practice one's religion together with others. Likewise, freedom of assembly is not just the right to hold a meeting. Rather it's a robust guarantee that includes the freedom to engage in effective ongoing political organizations - a freedom that citizens do not lose upon entering Congress. Cutting funds for LSOs is clearly meant to render them ineffective, to cripple them. Thus it abridges (curtails, diminishes, restricts) members' right of assembly and violates the First Amendment.

Most Americans are unfamiliar with LSOs, despite the vital roles they play. LSOs are portrayed as one more congressional boondoggle, but they are just the opposite: a shared resource created with sacrifices from individual members' office budgets. The oldest LSO, the Democratic Study Group, began in 1959 in an effort to overcome entrenched power in the party's congressional hierarchy that opposed the emerging civil rights agenda of the national Democratic Party.

Despite its partisan character, the Democratic Study Group has engaged in research, preparation of background material, and analyses of policy alternatives that were so valuable that a number of House Republicans paid $4,000 a year to receive its services. In addition, it issued legislative reports that helped members and their staffs to prioritize and deal with an enormous array of bills and other issues. The Republicans have had their own LSO, the Republican Study Committee, which operated along similar lines.

Some LSOs, like the Arts Caucus, have been expressly bipartisan, developing policy with broad support and keeping it from becoming captive to partisan wrangling. During the last Congress, the Women's Issues Caucus more than once played such a role. Rep. Constance Morella (R) of Maryland, as chair of its Domestic Violence Task Force, played a significant, if largely unheralded, role in shaping the Violence Against Women Act (a section of the crime bill), which addressed concerns of women across party lines.

FAR from being a special interest group, the Black Caucus has brought a unique perspective to bear on the legislative agenda, building bridges where others have built walls. For example, the Black Caucus has a long record of leadership in supporting workers, consumers, and the environment. The mature political leadership of the Black Caucus knows that, otherwise, minorities will suffer most on all three fronts. From agriculture to the information superhighway, the Black Caucus reminds us that all of us can gain special wisdom from the perspective of ``the least among us.''

The voluntary structure of LSOs complements the formal, compulsory structure of committees and subcommittees, just as most Americans supplement the formal, compulsory requirements of making a living and obeying the laws with voluntary associations of churches, social clubs, charities, and so on to form a well-rounded life in the community.

The new Republican leadership has buried the value of LSOs beneath layers of misinformation. First, LSOs don't cost taxpayers money: They are funded from members' office operating budgets. Second, LSOs don't increase staff levels: LSO staff slots must be donated from members' limited number of staff slots. Third, LSOs make Congress more efficient by sharing staff and reducing duplication. Fourth, LSOs are well-regulated to prevent waste and abuse, with major new regulations passed just last year making them subject to regular outside audits.

Once we've penetrated this misinformation, LSOs emerge as a valuable part of the legislative process, reflecting the voluntarism of the American tradition and protected by the First Amendment.

Constitutional experts say a First Amendment challenge to the defunding of LSOs probably would fail. There's a long precedent for letting Congress regulate itself, no matter what. This is a curious precedent, indeed. Could a majority of Congress outlaw female staffers? Or Latinos? Or blacks? We'll probably never know, because Congress would not abuse its power thus, at least not yet. Such contempt for the spirit of the Constitution would shock the American people, even if it wouldn't shock the courts. But members still ought to take this fight to court, not because their First Amendment rights will be protected there, but because they have been violated and no one seems to care.

The first to lose their freedoms are those least endowed with friends or power. Who would have thought the first to lose the freedom of assembly would be elected members of Congress, sworn to uphold the Constitution and the First Amendment? The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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