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Rep. Reuss: looking to retirement but still a reformer

Some leading US scholars worry about their federal government.

You sense it in their testimony before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee here. Many want drastic constitutional changes. Others aren't sure.

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The man who has brought them together is Rep. Henry S. Reuss (D) of Wisconsin , who is leaving Congress after serving there for 28 years. He says he thinks the caliber of Congress is better - but its organization worse - than when he took office. Mr. Reuss wonders, not immodestly, if his hearings aren't the best compendium of constitutional problems since the document was written, with quill pens, during that hot summer in Philadelphia so long ago.

''This country is in trouble,'' he says. ''High interest rates, recession, unemployment, and bankruptcies are tearing us apart. I see a destructive period of stagnation ahead, unless we change our course.''

But that's not the real problem with which Mr. Reuss and his successive panels of political scientists have been wrestling for a year or two - it's Congress and the Constitution itself. Should we face the problems now?

''There will never be a better time than in the four years between now and our constitutional bicentennial (1987) to see whether public opinion wants and supports change,'' Mr. Reuss says.

The room where Reuss directs his inquiry is as big as a basketball court. He sits on a perch above the panel, which looks like a recitation of prize scholars. On a particular day, it includes former Treasury Secretaries C. Douglas Dillon and Elliot Richardson and former US Sens. William Fulbright and Hugh Scott. On the next day, come historians James MacGregor Burns and James Sundquist, among others.

Concern over the political process isn't just confined to Congress. For example, the current issue of the New Yorker magazine seems to fill its whole number with a two-part series by Washington correspondent Elizabeth Drew on the rise of political action committees. These groups seem to be grabbing influence in Washington as the old-fashioned political parties lose discipline.

''Increasingly the shape and nature of our politics is being determined by the interests that have the money to contribute and the technicians who instruct the candidates in how to raise it and use it,'' Ms. Drew says.

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In the annual budget battle between White House and Congress, Reuss says nobody seems to know who's in charge anymore. Deficits are staggering. Are lobbyists taking over? Addressing colleagues for the last time before retiring to a different kind of public life, Reuss declares: ''As we approach the 200th anniversary of our Constitution - 'the greatest document ever struck off by the hand of man' - it's well to ask whether our system of government is still adequate to do the job.''

The founding fathers themselves, he notes, wanted each generation to consider anew whether improvements might not be necessary.

Colleagues praised Reuss Dec. 7 in the Congressional Record. On retirement, the spry, 70-year-old plans to devote himself to teaching, practicing law, and writing. He also seems likely to be a continuing prod to Congress. In days gone by, he was author of legislation that established the Peace Corps, and he made news in the House during the revolt of the liberal Democratic Young Turks over the seniority system that had made him chairman of the powerful Banking Committee for five years.

Reuss says he thinks Congress is less effective than 28 years ago. Indeed, some people, he says, are wondering if lawmakers are equal to the tasks ahead. He taps off changes during the more than quarter of a century he has served: ''The weakening of the political parties, the rise of the 'electronic congressman,' reform efforts that backfired, and uncontrolled campaign expenditures.''

It was a feudal system when Reuss entered the House - with committee chairmanships awarded by seniority. That's all gone today. But now it's harder to say who's in charge.

''The political parties provided us with party doctrine when we were in session and campaign contributions at election time,'' he recalls.

The seniority system was thrown out in 1975, but ''we went too far,'' Reuss says. ''We created a whole new set of power centers. We prevented those responsible from exercising their responsibility. Congress became less effective than ever.''

Then came a new development: The Supreme Court in 1976 (Buckley v. Valen) ruled that free speech allowed rich candidates, or political action committees, to boost campaign spending.

Reuss offers three radical proposals.

* Let the President, Senate, and House be elected on the same ballot and serve for the same term. That might increase chances of unity. And let the President and Congress each have an opportunity, once a term, to dissolve Congress and hold an election. Example: If the House rejected the MX missile (as it has just done), the President could demand a showdown national election, in which he would have to run himself and take his chances.

* Repeal Article 1, Section 6 of the Constitution (forbidding congressmen from sitting in the Cabinet) and let them serve in the legislative and executive branches at the same time.

* Reduce the Senate's power. Reuss says other democracies have cut the authority of upper houses (such the House of Lords in Britain). Let the Senate still confirm treaties, pass on presidential appointments, and preside over impeachments, but restrict its power to delay bills.

Says Reuss: ''This century has seen a succession of unresolved tensions in the government. There will never be a better time than in the next four years to the bicentennial to see if the public wants and supports change.''

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