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Reform of Congress Runs Into a Wall

Limits on committee assignments alarm many senior lawmakers

CONGRESSIONAL reform now totters on a precipice.

Attacked by critics, resisted by powerful members of Congress, reform could plunge to its demise over the next few months. Or it could be rescued - depending on how much public anger is directed at Congress.

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The outcome is not at all certain, says Thomas Mann, a political scholar at the Brookings Institution.

Among the reforms at risk:

* Putting Congress under federal laws to prevent employment discrimination on Capitol Hill because of race, gender, creed, age, or physical handicap.

* Limiting the number of committees and subcommittees upon which any member of the House or Senate can serve.

* Using panels of private citizens to investigate ethics violations and to make recommendations for punishment to key committees.

* Shifting Congress and the government to a two-year budget cycle, rather than the current one-year budget.

Even those changes fall far short for some critics. But Dr. Mann says the ethics, committee, and antidiscrimination reforms particularly could go a long way toward burnishing the scruffy image of Congress.

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The reform process gained momentum last year when the specially appointed, bipartisan Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress held a series of hearings during the spring and summer.

The committee heard more than 500 recommendations - ranging from drastic staff cuts to bans on proxy voting - from over 240 witnesses. When the ideas were bundled into legislative proposals, however, key members of Congress applied the brakes. Many ideas fell by the wayside.

Fear of change

Rep. David Dreier (R) of California, a cochairman of the joint reform committee, says congressional efforts are gripped by a ``morbid fear'' of change.

One of the changes that Representative Dreier would like to see involves the committee system, with its overlapping jurisdictions, multiple assignments, and absentee (proxy) voting when members are too hurried to attend meetings.

The current committee jurisdictions of Congress were established in 1946, long before issues like telecommunications, space flight, computers, and immigration were major issues.

Today, the antiquated committee system means approximately two dozen House committees and subcommittees are looking into health care reform, and more than 100 committees share jurisdiction over defense matters.

On the Senate side, the two leaders of reform - Sen. David Boren (D) of Oklahoma and Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico - have run into a similar political buzz saw.

Although senators on the reform committee voted 12-to-0 to accept 33 specific recommendations, Senator Boren's ideas took a sharp rebuff from the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.

``Senator, you'd better wake up,'' Boren was told by Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, the ranking Republican member on the rules committee. ``There's going to be chaos around here, and I, on this committee, am going to try and change [your proposals].''

Committee membership limits

Senator Stevens's opposition illustrates the problems faced by Boren, Dreier, and others. The Boren reforms would limit any senator, no matter what his seniority, to membership on three full committees and five subcommittees.

Stevens, who has served in the Senate since Dec. 24, 1968, currently is a member of five committees and 13 subcommittees. Last year he also served on the reform committee and the ethics committee.

Should Boren-style reform pass, Stevens would have to drop off of two major committees and eight subcommittees - a move that doesn't please him. Senior senators already serving on committees should be exempt from limits, or they will suffer the most from reform, he complained.

``[There must be] some waivers, and if you don't realize it, you ain't going to get this passed on the floor,'' Stevens said to Boren.

Democrats in the House are equally reluctant to make changes, which many analysts agree are needed but which would put more power into the hands of the minority Republicans.

Although Republicans represent 40 percent of the membership of the House, for example, Democrats in 1990 insisted that GOP members get no more than 20 percent of the funding for staff. Democrats also resisted Republican efforts to ban proxy voting, which permits members to vote in most committees without being present. Often, committee chairmen can use proxies to vote down Republican ideas, even if only one Democrat is present.

Mann says the separate reports put forward by the reform committee members in the House and Senate are a beginning, but both can be improved.

In the House, for example, a report by Mann and Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, suggests that the House plan to reduce the number of committees lacks ``teeth.''

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