Crisis on the Hill : Congress--Too Many Free Agents
The Founding Fathers in their effort to protect the American people from the dangers of concentrated power had created a system of checks and balances that, in this complex, fast-moving age, virtually guaranteed paralysis. . . . There could be no rash action, no rush to judgment, no tyranny by legislative majority, no uncontrolled chief executive. The difficulty of America in the late 20th Century was that the diffusion of power that had served it so well in the past had now cast it adrift.
--"The Double Man,” a novel by Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Me.) and former Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.).
Even amid the euphoria and self-congratulation stirred by the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution, there is one uniquely American democratic institution that is no longer held in high regard: the Congress.
Not only has President Reagan succeeded in branding Congress as a meddler in foreign policy and the chief culprit behind today’s record budget deficits, but an overwhelming number of the 535 members of the House and Senate themselves are clearly frustrated by what they see as their own inability to deal with pressing contemporary problems.
Failures and Foibles
Moreover, Americans of all political persuasions lately have come to regard the failures and foibles of members of Congress with a combination of contempt and disgust that is usually reserved for used car salesmen and loan sharks.
The problem, according to the experts, is that Congress--an institution conceived by the Founding Fathers to represent the sentiments of the majority and protect the status quo--has proved structurally incapable of responding to the ever-fluctuating economic and international realities of the 20th Century.
“The question has to be asked whether or not the concept of the checks and balances is consistent with the age of ‘future shock,’ where time is speeded up by events and where decision-making perhaps should be speeded up,” said Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Me.).
So far, the 100th Congress has dramatically demonstrated the obvious weaknesses of this system. Despite some serious talk of reform, no one expects any marked improvement when the current House and Senate reconvene as scheduled on Monday for their second session.
Even after a 508-point drop in the stock market last October, Congress was unable to trim more than $76 billion from the deficit over the next two years--an accomplishment that Reagan likened to laboring hard and bringing forth a “mouse.” In addition, the Iran-Contra hearings exposed a serious mistrust between the legislative and executive branches that appears to be eroding Congress’ ability to act as a cooperative partner in governing the nation.
And more than that, the basic lawmaking process appears to be breaking down.
Not only was there a marked increase last year in partisan bickering, combined with the usual filibuster threats and late-night sessions, but most of the work of the first session of the 100th Congress was wrapped into an undigestible $600-billion spending bill that passed just three days before Christmas--almost three full months after fiscal 1988 began.
“The Congress is becoming unaccountable,” lamented House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.). “The question we have to answer is: Has the machinery of government reached such a state of disrepair that it should be a matter of public concern? My answer--as subjective and prejudiced as it might be--is yes.”
So frustrated are three prominent senators--Daniel J. Evans (R-Wash.), Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.) and Paul S. Trible Jr. (R-Va.)--that they have announced they will be leaving Congress at the end of 1988. “It’s not the way to do the people’s business,” an exasperated Trible said, referring to last-minute spending legislation.
‘Just Really Sick’
And Sen. Jake Garn (R-Utah) recently stunned a Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee meeting when he told an assembled throng--senators, government officials, lobbyists and reporters--"I’m to the point where I don’t care what is done, as long as we do something. . . . Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I’m getting sick of all of you, just really sick.”
The frustrations expressed by these and other members have contributed to a keen sense of crisis on Capitol Hill--a fear that the American system of government may itself be threatened. But underneath the fear lies a fervent hope that salvation may be within reach.
“We’re at a point where the internal unhappiness has reached a state that in most institutions precedes reform,” Evans said. “It may well be one of those rare times--the moment of eclipse or something--when everything is on the line.”
In a survey of members of Congress made public earlier this month by the Center for Responsive Politics, nearly 95% of those questioned said changes are needed. Among the most popular potential reforms were those promising better legislative scheduling, higher pay, improved campaign financing and a reduction in the number of subcommittees.
But political scientists such as Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute caution that even with a massive procedural overhaul, Congress probably cannot overcome an equally fundamental problem: the existing ideological stalemate between Democrats and Republicans over how to proceed on most major issues.
“This is a system designed not to change the status quo unless you have a broad consensus that it has to be done,” Ornstein said. “A lot of people think that’s bad and we ought to reform it, but I can argue that the system is not failing. It is succeeding at the job it was designed to do.”
In fact, most experts contend that many of Congress’ current problems result directly from the last round of reforms in the post-Watergate era, when members reorganized the institution to make it more responsive to public pressure. Party leaders and powerful committee chairmen lost much of their influence and individual members gained the right to act as virtual free agents on most issues.
Many complain that instead of trying to find common solutions, members of Congress now react reflexively to their constituencies--and particularly to the highly organized, narrow interests within their constituencies.
“We don’t come here anymore and huddle together and figure out how to get it done,” said Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Sacramento). “We come here a champion in causes and speaking for groups.”
In this atmosphere, even new members of Congress quickly discover that one way to succeed is to take extreme positions contrary to those of the party leadership. “In the Senate,” noted Evans, “the youngest, rawest recruit can go to the press gallery and--particularly if the idea is a little outrageous--get lots of ink, both nationally and back home.”
The reforms of the 1970s also added to the confusion by causing a proliferation of subcommittee and congressional staff, according to Evans. “These staff people are bright and young and they think up more new ideas than are justified sometimes,” he said. “And having thought it up, they defend it fiercely and get in the way of solutions.”
Nostalgic About Past
As a result of these developments, members lately have grown nostalgic about the “good old days” when powerful party leaders still held sway over the careers of their members and used their considerable powers to deliver votes--frequently riding roughshod over the prerogatives of individual members.
“In the old days, the President of the United States would call up a handful of congressional leaders and they would speak for the Congress,” Trible said. “Or (former Speaker) Sam Rayburn over bourbon and water with a handful of his senior committee chairmen would decide what the House of Representatives would do. That kind of decision is no longer possible.”
Members also decry what they see as a general breakdown, dating to the Vietnam War era, in trust and cooperation between Congress and the President. During last summer’s Iran-Contra hearings, former White House aides John M. Poindexter and Oliver L. North testified that they saw nothing wrong with lying to Congress about U.S. foreign policy.
Contributing to the distrust is the recent tendency of American voters to elect Republican presidents and Democratic congresses.
Comity Is Difficult
“Divided government is the norm rather than the exception in American politics,” noted Thomas E. Mann, political scholar at the Brookings Institution. “The fact that the Republicans are a permanent minority party in the House, combined with their success in winning the presidency, has made comity between the branches difficult.”
Fazio said a general anti-government sentiment abroad in the land--the same feeling that helped elect Reagan and his predecessor, Jimmy Carter--has contributed to strained relations between Congress and the President. “Congress becomes the butt of everybody’s criticism,” he said, “and that, of course, firms up our resolve to stick it in their ear.”
Many Democrats contend that Congress would work better with more leadership from Reagan.
“People ask: ‘Why can’t the Congress run the nation?’ ” said Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Monterey). “Well, it wasn’t designed to run the nation. We’re designed to evaluate proposals, to evaluate bills. A large number of those bills should be generated from the White House. In the last couple of years, there has been almost a vacuum in which the President has not exercised close coordination with Congress or laid out a legislative agenda.”
But while the Reagan White House certainly bears some responsibility, House and Senate members readily admit that Congress is by no means blameless. One of Congress’ most egregious practices, they say, is enactment of so-called megabills such as last month’s $600-billion spending measure and a 2,247-page bill to trim the federal budget deficit.
Michel said such legislation forces the President to accept items he opposes unless he is willing to veto a bill necessary to keep the government operating. “This truly turns the veto provisions of the Constitution on their heads,” he said.
In addition, Michel noted that members of Congress usually have no idea what is contained in these gigantic bills. That way, he said, members can escape responsibility for having voted for the bills’ less savory provisions.
Among the provisions of last month’s $600-billion spending bill, for example, was one designed by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) to force Australian newspaper mogul Rupert Murdoch to sell the New York Post and the Boston Herald. More than a week elapsed before most members of Congress realized that they had voted for the Murdoch provision.
Cannot Agree on Issues
Congress has resorted to megabills, Ornstein said, because its members cannot agree on individual issues and thus cannot pass bills on such narrow issues as Murdoch’s newspaper ownership. Their only hope is to attach their pet causes to must-pass legislation.
“Whenever you see a train leaving the station that you are reasonably confident will reach its destination,” he said, “the natural tendency of everybody is to add on more cars, throw on more luggage, pack in more passengers that otherwise might not make it to the end.”
Nathaniel Semple, vice president of the Committee for Economic Development, an organization of business executives, said megabills contribute significantly to the public view that Congress cannot act responsibly. “It’s getting to the point now that people throw up their hands in despair,” he said.
When it comes down to the nuts and bolts of lawmaking, the House, which operates under strict rules, is a model of decorum contrasted with the unruly Senate, which allows unlimited debate and amendments on every bill.
Evans argues that Senate debate has become meaningless. Not only do senators no longer listen to each other, he noted, but frequently--as in Reagan’s unsuccessful nomination of Judge Robert H. Bork to be a Supreme Court justice last year--nearly every senator has declared his position before the debate opens.
Floor consideration of the fiscal 1988 Defense Department authorization bill provided a classic example of the Senate run amok. Before finally passing the legislation, senators debated the bill for more than three weeks--longer than they had debated any defense bill since the Vietnam War--and threatened several filibusters.
The full Senate considered fully 116 amendments, many of them written by members of the Armed Services Committee who had not offered their proposals when the bill was being considered in committee. Moreover, many amendments had nothing to do with the operations of the Defense Department, the stated purpose of the bill.
“It’s like a river that is without banks,” Cohen said. “It’s not a river; it’s a flood. Everybody has become an expert. In past years a committee chairman could bring a bill to the floor and in a reasonable time say: ‘This is a package.’ You can’t do that anymore.”
Need to Impress Voters
Trible said the crush of amendments has less to do with improving the bill than with a need to impress the voters back home--"a great rush to fashion a long list of things that I have done for you and to crank out the press releases to tell the world.”
Senators also lament the “trivialization” of the filibuster--the age-old technique by which a single senator can block a vote by debating around the clock. Evans noted there are very few true filibusters any more, but some senators--such as Jesse Helms (R-N.C.)--frequently get their way by threatening to filibuster on issues that are so minor that no one wants to fight back.
“The filibuster was never intended to be a common and ordinary element of the Senate,” he said.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, 77% of senators favor limiting the use of the filibuster, 74% want to curtail the practice of allowing a single senator to block floor action on a bill and 62% favor limiting the right of senators to offer any amendment to any bill, whether it is germane or not.
Grave as the legislative paralysis may be, political scientists believe it is not yet incurable. A hopeful straw in the wind: Many members of Congress are so frustrated by the lack of progress that they are finally volunteering to give up some of their individual prerogatives to strengthen the hands of their leadership.
“No member of Congress really wants to give up his freedom to act as an individual,” Mann noted. “On the other hand, most of the people, or a good number, care about outcomes. They realize that nothing is going to get done unless some changes are made and some leaders are strengthened--and they are willing to do that.”
Mann views the recent budget compromise negotiated between congressional leaders and Reagan Administration officials as evidence that Congress is in the process of recentralizing power in the hands of its leaders. He predicted the trend will continue.
Ornstein agreed, noting that the tax increase legislation of 1982 and the tax reform package of 1986 both were put together by party leaders and committee chairmen in closed meetings--a trend that runs directly counter to the reforms of the 1970s.
Indeed, power has become sufficiently centralized in the House that members of the Republican minority have begun to complain that their rights are being abridged by the high-handed tactics of Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.). While Democrats merely call Wright a more active leader than his predecessor, Rep. Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), GOP members portray him as the most partisan Speaker of modern times.
Michel noted, for example, that while 237 members--more than half the House--have co-sponsored a constitutional amendment calling for a balanced budget, Wright has never allowed it to be debated on the floor because he opposes it.
According to Panetta, the megabills are also part of Wright’s play for power.
“I think we’re in a period where there is an effort to reassert the ability of the leadership to drive the institution,” he said. “Part of it is reflected in Speaker Wright’s efforts, because he is a much more activist Speaker. Some of these (megabills) are developed as a consequence of that. I don’t deny that.”
Restrictive Rules Sought
Mann added: “Increasingly you are seeing an effort to have more restrictive rules--particularly in the House. It’s part of this new effort to get hold of the chaos and bring some order and predictability to a situation that has been unpredictable.”
The first steps toward reform will surely be cautious ones. While the Republican minority continues to press for major procedural changes--adopting a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced federal budget, allowing the President to veto individual line items in gigantic spending bills without throwing out the whole bill--the Democrats who control Congress are focusing on more modest reforms designed primarily to improve their working conditions.
For example, under pressure from younger senators, Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) has agreed that the Senate will meet Monday through Friday this year for three weeks every month and take the fourth week off. This plan is designed to end the usual Tuesday-through-Thursday Senate workweeks, which have proven so unproductive.
Both inside Congress and outside, many hold out hope of restoring productivity to the congressional system under a new President. They reason that virtually all of the presidential candidates--most of them Washington “insiders” and many of them members of Congress--are likely to be much more cooperative with Congress than either Reagan or Carter.