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Rescuing Congress

CONGRESS remains mired in the House banking controversy, with a special counsel sniffing at members' financial records and the public's disgust unabated. But reformers in Congress are determined to rescue their institution.

Campaign-spending reform leads their agenda. A bill to voluntarily cap spending, provide federal matching funds for congressional races, and rein in political action committees has cleared the House. The Senate should follow, and President Bush should refrain from his promised veto - unless he wants some of the blame for Congress's problems.

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Equally important is comprehensive structural reform. A bipartisan team of lawmakers - Sens. David Boren (D) of Oklahoma and Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, and Reps. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana and Bill Gradison (R) of Ohio - wants a special joint committee to identify the causes of congressional ineffectiveness. A similar panel undertook the last extensive reform of Congress in 1946.

Among the targets:

* An unwieldy and duplicative committee system. Over the last 40 years, the number of committees and subcommittees has risen from 173 to 282. Legislators often have more assignments than they can handle. Jurisdiction over important issues like international trade is fragmented and assigned according to outdated criteria.

* The expanding congressional staff. Some 12,000 staffers directly serve members of Congress, with thousands more attached to such agencies as the Congressional Budget Office. The task is not just to trim staff, but to reallocate help where needed.

* A jumbled agenda. Current methods of setting legislative priorities don't give the most important items the most immediate attention. Too often, everything gets shoved to the end of a session. More agenda-setting power in the hands of the leadership may be needed.

* Untempered filibustering. The Senate must find a way to limit debate more reasonably.

Legislation to launch the reform panel will be put in final form next month. Recommendations should be ready before the end of 1993. Congressional reform has surfaced before only to drown in a tide of partisan interests. The public's concerns, felt sharply in Washington, should push it through this time.

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