Congress Takes A Push Broom To Its Operation
Led by House, it changes internal rules
WASHINGTON — The United States Capitol is a drafty old building filled with portraits of people wearing powdered wigs and stovepipe hats. It's a setting where even the status quo can seem radical.
But despite the tug of tradition here, and plenty of legislative setbacks, the Republican-led 104th Congress has left an enduring mark on how this staid institution operates.
Its reforms include new restrictions on gifts and lobbying, a streamlined staff and committee structure, a line-item veto, and a bill forcing Congress to abide by its own laws.
Although these changes might seem Lilliputian next to some of the reforms that didn't pass, like term limits and campaign finance reform, they've already begun to change the way Congress works. Most analysts agree that when it decamps next month, the 104th Congress will rank as one of the most reformist in decades.
"These changes are very significant," says Tim Penny, a former Democratic congressman from Minnesota. "You'd have to look back at least 20 years or more to find a Congress that's done as much."
The main engine of reform was the House of Representatives, where a young and brash class of mostly Republican freshmen came in ready to broom the cobwebs. On the first day of the 104th, the House passed a dizzying array of structural reforms.
Three standing committees and 25 subcommittees were eliminated, staff levels were reduced by one-third, and the congressional budget was slashed by 10 percent. Committee chairmen and the Speaker were given term limits, proxy voting in committees was banned, and more meetings were opened to reporters.
In addition, new rules made it easier for members with low seniority to propose bills, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich dealt the ages-old seniority system a blow when he appointed junior members to lead committees.
In recent weeks, Republicans have discussed revamping or even eliminating the Appropriations and Agriculture Committees, which some see as founts of pork and patronage.
The result is a leaner, more centralized system that gave Speaker Gingrich far more power to control the agenda and prevent committees from becoming independent fiefdoms. "The obvious benefit is that a Speaker who wants to get things done can make Congress more efficient," says Mickey Edwards, a former Oklahoma Republican congressman. "If Congress moves more decisively, it makes it easier to challenge the executive branch."
While Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution believes that these changes are a net positive, he notes that they can also backfire. House Republican leaders gained so much power over committees, he argues, that many hearings were eliminated or rushed to completion, and task forces were often given enormous responsibilities. "In its zeal to act quickly," Mr. Mann says, the GOP "lost the comparative advantages of a legislative body to deliberate and negotiate."
But most reforms have had the opposite effect: forcing Congress to contend with issues it once ignored. One example is the Congressional Accountability Act, which requires Congress to abide by the same labor rules it applies to private businesses.
As it took effect this year, the act forced members of Congress to decide which staffers qualified for overtime pay, and to grapple with the idea of unions on Capitol Hill.
In recent weeks, some members have flouted the rules, and momentum has increased in both parties to pass a "flex time" law that allows all American workers to take overtime compensation in the form of extra time off.
Other reforms have had similar legislative effects. One example is the "unfunded mandates" bill that requires Congress to compensate states and localities for any extra costs they incur under new federal regulations. According to David Mason of the Heritage Foundation, this bill has forced lawmakers to be more judicious in crafting comprehensive reforms like the recent telecommunications bill.
In addition, Congress passed a law designed to guard against its own excesses: the line-item veto. This tool allows the president to rescind single spending items without vetoing an entire bill. When it takes effect next year, it will make it harder for Congress to lard pet projects onto spending bills.
Yet to many, Congress failed in the most crucial area of reform: campaign finance. Bills that would ban fund-raising within 50 miles of the Capitol and force lawmakers to accept the bulk of their contributions from their native states fell flat.
Nevertheless, Congress did make one small step: approving new laws that ban most gifts to lawmakers and require lobbyists to disclose their activities. While Mr. Penny argues that there are lots of loopholes in these rules, they have helped dampen the culture of influence on Capitol Hill.
Still, the Senate has been slow to act. Despite much discussion, Senators did not come close to weakening tools like "filibusters" or "anonymous holds" that allow single members to prevent bills from coming to the floor.
In addition, observers say, neither chamber addressed lingering problems with the ethics process. And despite pleas to the contrary, Republicans often used some of the dictatorial parliamentary tactics they had long denounced during Democratic rule.
According to Mann, it will take another reformist Congress to iron out some of these kinks and proceed to larger reforms. Still, the Republican Congress deserves some credit. "It was a time for bold action," he says, "and boldly act the Republicans did."