Congress's Bad Old Days Weren't So Bad
Reformers have often succeeded in making things worse, not better
THE history of congressional government over the last 50 years can properly be divided into two periods: BCC and ACC, Before Common Cause and After Common Cause.
In the approximately 25 years from 1949 to 1970, and the founding of Common Cause, Congress operated largely under the provisions of the 1946 Reorganization Act, of which Speaker Sam Rayburn was reported to have said its two best provisions were the salary increase for members of Congress and the retirement program.
In that period, sometimes with the support of the executive branch, sometimes in opposition, Congress paid off debts remaining from World War II, met the costs of the Korean War, initiated and financed the Marshall Plan and the NATO support program, extended the Social Security program to include nearly all United States citizens, established and financed Medicare and Medicaid (the federal portion), built and paid for the Eisenhower Federal Highway, balanced the budget in a number of years, and allowed a n increase in the national debt of less than $150 billion in more than 20 years. Scandals were few, limited largely to personal misconduct without any serious prejudice or threat to the operations of the House or the Senate.
All of this was done with the powerful House Rules Committee in place, with seniority rules generally operative, without either a House or Senate code of ethics in place, and without the Federal Election amendments of 1975-76 limiting campaign contributions and prescribing other purifying controls over the elective process. Members returned to their states and districts when Congress was out of session, risking conflict of interest with their farms or businesses or professions.
The primary constitutional responsibilities, those of the Senate for foreign policy and of the House of Representatives for fiscal matters, were generally recognized and honored. Revenue bills not only originated in the House, but were offered to the membership under strict rules, and no serious tampering with tax bills was allowed in the Senate. Tax measures passed in these years were essentially what the House Ways and Means Committee recommended. The primary responsibility of the Senate for foreign po licy was generally respected.
Then came the 1970s, and reformers - led, sustained, aided, and abetted by the League of Women Voters and especially by Common Cause, with support and encouragement from the press. By the end of the '70s, power and responsibility - which had previously been exercised by the Speaker of the House, by the Rules Committee, and by chairmen and senior members of House and Senate committees - was widely dispersed among a greater number of committees and subcommittees. Office staff and committee staff were great ly increased.
Leaders of both the House and the Senate acknowledged that their positions of leadership had been seriously eroded. Power was minimized and scattered. Responsibility was scarcely to be found.
In 1974, the House membership limited the power of the Ways and Means Committee. In 1975, the House attacked the principle of seniority as a basis for determining who should be chairmen of committees and subcommittees.
The Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 took power not only from the chairmen of appropriations committees, but also from other standing committees - and even from the House of Representatives, in that it established a joint committee with the Senate on spending and tax policy.
The House by this action gave up its clear constitutional and traditional responsibility. In an attempt to make up for the failure of the Budget Control Act, Congress in 1985 passed the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction law. But budget deficits have been greater in the years following the budget reforms than at any time in the country's history.
The reformers also turned to the political process, on the assumption, it appears, that reforms in other areas could not work unless the procedure by which members of Congress were chosen was also reformed. As a result amendments to the Federal Election Act were adopted in 1975-76. The law proposed to eliminate or alleviate the evil effects of money by limiting personal contributions, providing government financing, and legitimizing corporate political action committees (PACs).The amount of money spent i n campaigns has grown significantly since the amendments were adopted. Common Cause is now soliciting contributions to challenge the PACs set up by the law it supported in Congress in 1975.
THERE was more reform to come. From 1977 to 1979, with starts and stops, advances and retreats, the House of Representatives and the Senate each adopted a code of ethics. Since adoption of the codes and other reforms, there have been more cases of moral and legal failure on the part of members of Congress than in the preceding quarter century - such things as the conduct revealed in Abscam, the more recent House Post Office and Bank cases, and individual cases like those of Speaker James Wright and Sen. Dave Durenberger (R) of Minnesota. We have come close to the conditions described by the duke in Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" when he interpreted the state of the world as one in which there was "scarce truth enough to make society secure, but security enough to make brotherhood accurst."
Another set of reformers now propose constitutional amendments to balance the budget and term limitations on members of the House and Senate. What should be done?
1. The House and the Senate should be "disorganized," or reorganized, to about what their organization was in the 1950s.
2. Seniority should be again recognized in both bodies, and the power of the speaker and of the Rules Committee restored in the House.
3. The budget process now in place should be abolished and the House of Representatives should reassert its primacy over appropriations and the Ways and Means Committee over taxes.
4. The Senate should reassert its power and responsibility in the field of foreign policy both against the president (the commander in chief) and also against the House of Representatives, which has been intruding (sometimes at presidential request) with amendments and riders.
5. Sessions of Congress should be shortened so that members can spend more time with their constituents, thus freeing themselves in some measure from the need to spend large amounts of money to communicate with constituents and prospective voters. The number of staff members should be drastically cut.
6. The number of members in the House of Representatives should be doubled from its current 435. The average congressional district today is approximately 600,000 persons. (It was a little more than 300,000 when I was elected to the House of Representative in 1948.)
Germany's Bundestag has 662 members. The British House of Commons has 651. The National Assembly of France has 577 members, and the Diet of Japan has 512. In Japan the ratio of constituents for each representative is approximately 1 to 238,000; in Germany 1 to 120,000; in France 1 to 96,000; and in England 1 to 87,000.
7. The Federal Election amendments of 1975-76 should be repealed or substantially amended and the codes of ethics treated the same way so that persons of limited means can both run for office and hold office without being in continuous danger of violating the law.