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Congressional Reform: Handle With Care

ONE of the results of this otherwise highly unpredictable political year has already become a certainty: There will be a large, perhaps unprecedented, turnover in the membership of Congress. Already we know that more than 70 members of the House of Representatives will not be there next January. They are running for other offices, they have been defeated in primaries, or they have announced their retirement. This number will increase, possibly to 100 or more, in November.

This comes about because of decennial redistricting to reflect changes in population, because of scandals in the House, and because of general public impatience with our political institutions. It should put an end to concern about "the eternal Congress" in which incumbents are endlessly reelected. It should also put an end to the agitation for a constitutional term limitation on service in Congress. It is a good example of the self-correcting features of the American political system at work.

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Given the level of public disenchantment with Congress, it is a safe bet that the new members will arrive bent on reform. That should give us all cause for concern unless it is approached with the utmost care. The congressional leadership right now should put the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress to work on a study of the last wave of congressional reform and of its unintended consequences. Such a study might not help the new members of Congress know what to do, but it will certai nly point them away from several grievous mistakes.

The last major reforms in Congress followed the election of 1974, which produced 86 new members. That was the first election after the Watergate scandal. The government was in ill repute then, as it is now. The new members made common cause with a small, but theretofore ineffective, band of reformers already in the House to bring about a revolution and plant the seeds of many of the present difficulties.

There were three main reforms: (1) committee chairmen were made responsible to the party caucus; (2) subcommittees were increased in number and given more independence; and (3) procedural rules were changed to make it easier to force record votes.

There is no very good reason why committee chairmen should not be answerable to the caucus, but in 1974 this was a truly earthshaking assault on the seniority system and it was accompanied by the unceremonious dumping of three of the House's most senior committee chairmen.

Further, in some cases, the caucus even skipped several places down the seniority list to find a new chairman. This was a reaction to the dictatorial arrogance of some committee chairmen whom the rigidities of the seniority system had made unassailable.

The reformers wrote into the House rules what they called a subcommittee bill of rights: every standing committee was to have at least four subcommittees; each subcommittee was to have its own staff and budget, independent of the full committee of which it was a part. This likewise was an expression of frustration with strong-minded committee chairmen and especially with Wilbur Mills, who allowed no subcommittees at all on his Ways and Means Committee.

FINALLY, the reformers made some changes in obscure House rules, the net effect of which was to make it easier to force record votes on amendments during House debate. These changes stemmed from frustration over having been unable to get a clean, up-or-down vote on the Vietnam War.

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Each of these reforms in 1974-75 had a worthy objective; each also brought unforeseen, unintended, and undesirable consequences. When committee chairmen can be deposed by the caucus, the way is opened for endless cabals, conspiracies, and plots of coups d'etat among ambitious junior committee members. When subcommittees have their own budgets and staffs, subcommittee chairmen become as arrogant and dictatorial as full committee chairmen used to be, and there are more of them. When members can be forced t o go on record about every fatuous amendment that comes along, the House loses a way to bury bad ideas without subjecting members to the threat of negative campaign advertising.

The Senate has different rules and procedures than the House, but the Senate felt the tremors of the earthquake which shook the House in 1974. This is particularly reflected in the proliferation of staff and subcommittees.

These reforms were designed to make the House more democratic, but in fact they made it almost anarchic. They are mainly responsible for the legislative gridlock which is so much (and so justly) criticized. Power has been dispersed, Congress has lost its coherence, and the leadership has lost its capacity to lead.

These are lessons which should be taken to heart by the incoming congressional class of 1992.

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