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Overdue Overhaul

WITH a sense of urgency driven by last year's elections, Congress is taking the deepest look in two decades at reforming the way it works.

Detailed in a 10-part series whose final installment appears on Page 3 of today's edition, reform efforts range from changing the way congressional campaigns are financed to cutting perks for members of Congress.

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Efforts to change the way Capitol Hill does business deserve just as much public focus and support as health-care reform or deficit reduction; the quality of the congressional process can have a direct bearing on the quality of these "pocketbook" reforms themselves.

Reforms are proceeding on two tracks. Campaign-finance legislation is moving through the Senate. Process issues are being considered by the bipartisan Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, whose mandate expires at the end of the year.

Three areas that could have the broadest impact on influence, ethics, and efficiency should receive the highest priority. These include:

* Campaign finance. While large contributions may not buy votes on the floor of the House or Senate, they do buy access unavailable to the average voter. A Senate bill that seeks the use of public funds to pay for congressional campaigns, coupled with tighter restrictions on so-called soft-money donations to political parties, on election-year perks for incumbents, and on PAC and out-of-state contributions could be a significant advance.

* Reducing the number of committees. This could streamline lawmaking by reducing the number of panels involved in processing legislation, increase accountability, and reduce the amount of time federal officials spend testifying in Congress so they can run their agencies.

* Bring Congress into compliance with the laws it passes. While lawmakers have made progress in this area, particularly regarding employment issues, both houses still permit themselves the liberty to disregard laws dealing with issues ranging from occupational safety to age discrimination.

These and other reform proposals face stiff political challenges. Republicans and Democrats disagree over key elements of reforming campaign-finance laws. Senate Republicans have successfully used filibusters to change legislation. Proposals to eliminate committees are likely to run afoul of those who chair the committees in question.

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Yet with more than 100 freshman members, Congress convened with a demand from voters to change how it conducts the nation's business. Bold reforms could rally the voters behind an institution that for too long has met with low public esteem.

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