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Gridlock's Last Stand

DEMOCRAT leaders in the House of Representatives are proving once again that they cannot clean up Congress. After nearly a year of deliberation, House Democrats serving on a temporary committee created to reform the way Congress does business voted last month to continue business-as-usual.

The reform panel, known as the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, was created to help Congress correct the widespread and accurate perception that it is bloated and unresponsive to the concerns of average Americans. The committee was given one year to recommend solutions. To add legitimacy, an equal number of Democrats and Republicans from both the House and Senate were appointed to the panel.

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When the committee began its work in January, there was a great sense of optimism that significant, bipartisan reforms would be made to reduce staff bureaucracy, streamline the committee system, simplify the budget process, and improve deliberation and accountability. During six months of hearings, the committee heard from 243 witnesses, including House and Senate leaders, 133 representatives, and more than two dozen senators.

These witnesses detailed myriad problems: Former Vice President Walter Mondale observed, ``By the end of my career here in the Senate I suddenly realized that I had too much staff.'' And former senator and renowned deficit hawk Warren Rudman noted that it takes 24 separate legislative events each year to buy pencils for the Pentagon.

Time and again witnesses, including most of the members of Congress who testified, told the panel to be ``bold,'' think ``comprehensively,'' and not to worry about challenging the entrenched powers that thrive under the status quo.

Unfortunately, when it came time to act, the House Democrats on the committee were not up to the task. Democrat leaders delayed the committee's work for three months and allowed a small group of anti-reformers to derail the process. Frustrated by the delaying tactics, Senate panel members, led by David Boren (D) of Oklahoma and Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, moved a far-reaching and bipartisan Senate reform plan separately.

Facing a public-relations disaster, House Democrats moved a highly partisan plan that contained a few studies and nonbinding resolutions, but little substance. Efforts to make the plan bipartisan and comprehensive were summarily dismissed.

Democrats said applying workplace safety and antidiscrimination laws to Congress needed more study. They blocked a plan to allow spending cuts to go toward deficit reduction because then they could not spend the money elsewhere. They rejected an amendment to cut the 38,000 congressional staffers by 12 percent, contending that the bureaucracy had been reduced enough. Finally, instead of killing the reform process outright, House Democrats chose to punt any significant reform decisions to the highly partisan Rules Committee, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 9 to 4.

Democrat leaders have agreed to reconsider a number of reform proposals when the Joint Committee recommendations are brought to the House floor for a vote, possibly in late March or early April. But many Americans are now wondering how Congress can reform the country's health-care, welfare, and criminal justice systems when it cannot put its own house in order. The question will turn on whether rank-and-file Democrats in Congress find the courage to listen to their constituents and place good government over the self-interest of Democrat leaders.

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