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Search Is On for Fewer Committees

Lawmakers seek ways to lessen assignment overload that leads to meeting conflicts, absences

A REPUBLICAN congressman says that when he can't immediately recall the name of a House Democrat, one greeting is almost always appropriate: "Hello, Mr. Chairman."

Congress has so many committees, subcommittees, panels, and task forces - 266, by last count - that there's nearly one chairman's post for each of the 312 Democratic members of the House and Senate.

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Reformers on Capitol Hill, like Sen. David Boren (D) of Oklahoma, argue that's far too many. It results in too many meetings, conflicting schedules, and overlapping jurisdictions, they say.

Troubled by all this, Senator Boren and other members of the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress this month will wade into some politically treacherous waters. They will explore proposals to slash the number of committees and subcommittees by one-half or more. Many chairmen, the most powerful people in Congress, could lose their jobs.

Members of the House of Representatives already have demonstrated they are ready for significant change. Despite howls of protest from special interests, they recently abolished four select committees on narcotics, on hunger, on aging, and on children, youth, and families. The cuts will eliminate 85 staff jobs and save $2.6 million a year.

Sen. Wendell Ford (D) of Kentucky, though sympathetic, warns Boren he could have his "hide torn off" by members angered by the potential loss of their committees. But Senator Ford, who has served nearly two decades on Capitol Hill, urges Boren to press on, promising that his hide "will be tougher when it grows back."

Anyone who has spent a few weeks on Capitol Hill quickly sees the immense strain put on members by their sprawling committee system. Simultaneous hearings send members rushing from meeting to meeting in a breathless schedule.

In the Senate, a typical member serves on 9 to 13 committees and subcommittees, with one senator serving on as many as 22.

In the House, Rep. Karen Shepherd (D) of Utah, a freshman, already serves on two major committees, plus five subcommittees, though she's been here only three months. But it's not unusual for House members to belong to 9 or 10 committees and subcommittees.

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Over and over, one hears complaints from members that their schedules leave too little time for discussions with fellow members, for thinking about issues, and for crafting good legislation.

Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington, a new member, says: "One of the most frustrating things for me as a freshman senator ... was that I was supposed to be in 40 different places at once, and every one of those places was an important place to be." She calls the current system "a haphazard mess."

In an interview, Rep. Jim Nussle (R) of Iowa concurs that Congress needs fundamental change. He says people who watch the House on C-SPAN often wonder why there is such a hubbub, as members move about the floor talking with one another, while ignoring the speeches.

"Constituents ask, `Why can't you stop talking in the chamber?'" Representative Nussle says. "Well, we never see each other. Members of Congress do not have the time to communicate among themselves enough.... We don't spend enough quality time talking and learning about each other, which would bring the institution and the country closer together."

Even the joint committee, which is charged with reforming Congress, suffers from the "busy-ness" problem.

At a recent hearing, about half the members, both senators and representatives, were there as it began. But very soon, House members left because of a floor vote. Senators also came and went, including Boren, the co-chairman, who excused himself to attend a campaign finance meeting. Soon, only three members of the committee were left, all Republicans. Only reporters and staff members heard all the testimony.

Boren calls this "fractured attention." His goal: cut the total number of committees to 50 or 100 and abolish most subcommittees. Other lawmakers support various reforms, including:

* Limit committee chairmen to six-year terms to rotate power.

* Cut committee staffs, whose current size encourages "make work" projects that distract from members' time.

* Reorganize committees so that House, Senate, and executive branch agencies all parallel one another.

* Create more joint committees to cut the need for duplicative hearings.

* Combine the appropriations committees with the authorization committees.

* Abolish "proxy" voting within committees, which makes it easier for members to serve on multiple committees without attending meetings.

* Sharply reduce the number of committees and subcommittees each member may serve on.

In the House, the 110 freshman members are discussing ways to work together to bring about serious changes, including committee reform.

The freshman Republicans, under a task force led by Rep. Peter Torkildsen of Massachusetts and Rep. Tillie Fowler of Florida, would eliminate 25 percent of committee funding to force consolidation.

The Democratic group, demanding that Boren's committee be "bold," wants a 25 percent budget cut for the entire Congress - a move that would significantly shrink staffs, and therefore committees.

While momentum for reform is building, the forces opposing it are strong.

It's going to be necessary to "shake the tree a little bit," suggests Rep. Wayne Allard (R) of Colorado. Boren concurs. "It's always hard to change the status quo," he says.

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