Process Held Unruly : New Activists Dilute Power in Congress

Times Staff Writer

Democratic Rep. Charles E. Schumer has no farms in his Brooklyn, N.Y., district, and he is not a member of the House Agriculture Committee. But when he discovered that American farmers were dividing their land into more than one operating unit to get around a rule limiting agricultural subsidies to $50,000 per farm, he felt compelled to do something.

“I’m an urban guy,” Schumer noted, “but nobody on the Agriculture Committee was doing anything to stop it, and so I got on the floor and put in an amendment to stop it.”

The amendment drew Schumer into six months of back room negotiations that eventually produced compromise legislation on farm subsidies. And it added one more item to a long list of issues--including housing, immigration, the homeless, consumer banking, Third World debt and trade reform--that Schumer now views as part of his own, personal legislative domain.

By all accounts, Schumer’s passion for difficult legislative issues has made the 37-year-old liberal New Yorker part of the solution on a host of specific issues, and in the process both an unusually productive member of Congress and a man widely regarded as a rising young star in American politics.


But Schumer’s impulse to jump into everything that catches his eye also makes him part of the problem, in the view of congressional colleagues and outside experts who are concerned about what they see as the persistent inability of the House and Senate to take care of the nation’s business.

More Hard Working

“We’ve probably never had as many good people in Congress--with a paucity of result,” said Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Sacramento), a 10-year House veteran who is regarded by his colleagues as a keen observer of its operation. “I think this place is more honest, hard working than it has been at various times in our history, but that doesn’t mean we’re getting the job done.”

Schumer practices a type of legislative activism that has become the norm rather than the exception among the hundreds of young, ambitious men and women now serving in the 100th Congress--activism spurred by the congressional reforms of the 1970s that eliminated the tyranny of the seniority system. “People ask me why I am involved in so many things,” he said. “The answer is: I love the legislative process. I get my highs by taking good ideas and putting them into reality.”


Yet even though Schumer and other earnest young activists have unquestionably raised the quality of legislative debate on Capitol Hill over the past decade, their strong desire to prove themselves on a wide range of issues is also at the very heart of what makes the Congress such an unruly institution--unable to get its work done on time and frequently incapable of agreeing on legislation that almost everyone thinks is necessary.

“In the last 10 years or less, you have a new type of member,” remarked Norman J. Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute who specializes in the operation of Congress. “They are clever, broad-ranging, aggressive people and they are dealing with a political system that doesn’t have their roles defined nearly as clearly as they might have been 20 or 30 years ago.”

Reversal of Reforms

Political scientists and many members claim Congress would be a more effective institution if, in a reversal of the reforms of the 1970s, more power were concentrated in the hands of party leaders.

And even many of the young congressional activists--frustrated themselves by their long hours, the failure of Congress to work efficiently and the lack of progress on major issues such as the budget deficit--are crying out for a return to bygone days when senior party leaders had much more control over the rank-and-file.

“When I was in the state Legislature,” recalled Schumer, “you crossed the Speaker and you were gone. He picked what committees you were on. He picked the committee chairman. Here, the Speaker has none of those powers. If Iwant to vote against the Speaker, there is little he could do to me. So it might be a change for the better if we centralized more power in the hands of the Speaker. It would probably be better for the institution.”

Nevertheless, while there has been some recentralization of power in the hands of congressional leaders in the past few years, it now seems unlikely that the current crop of rank-and-file members of Congress are going to sacrifice more than a modest amount of freedom in exchange for a more disciplined national legislature.

Unwilling to Yield


“Today you have 535 people in Congress who all want to be an important part of the process, who are unwilling to wait,” said Sen. Paul S. Trible Jr. (R-Va.). “My sense is that congressmen and senators today are better trained and educated than in years past and they’re not willing to yield their responsibilities and prerogatives to others.”

While Schumer is generally viewed as a party loyalist, there are many other members whose ideology or loyalty lies elsewhere and who resist the dictates of the leadership stubbornly. House Republicans, for example, who have been in the minority for the past 34 years, are particularly reluctant to do anything that would enhance the power of the Democratic leadership.

Schumer’s record vividly demonstrates how a fourth-term congressman with relatively little seniority can have at least as much influence over the course of events in Congress as many well-established, senior members.

In 1986, Schumer played a key role in developing a compromise immigration reform bill. And last year, among other things, he spearheaded U.S. efforts to get Japan to open up its government securities market to American firms. He was also a moving force behind legislation to encourage American credit card companies to bring down their interest rates.

At the same time, he is deeply involved in several projects outside the realm of Congress--such as an effort by officials in metropolitan New York City to fashion a package of improved educational and employment opportunities for minorities in the wake of the death of a black man in a racially charged confrontation in the city’s Howard Beach neighborhood.

“Schumer loves making a difference,” said Thomas E. Mann, congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution. “In some ways, he’s more interested in being respected and being influential in Washington than he is worried about his political base back home.”

Tackles Housing Issue

On Dec. 17, for example, Schumer chaired a House hearing in Washington designed to dramatize the relationship between homelessness and cuts in federal housing assistance--a link he feels has been lost in a wave of publicity about mentally ill street dwellers. He hoped the hearings would force passage of a pending housing bill opposed by the Reagan Administration.


The key witnesses at the hearing were Shirley Hill Reese and her daughter, Sherice, a 15-year-old honor student, who were facing homelessness for the second time in two years because of skyrocketing rents in New York City. After their heart-breaking story was featured that night on the NBC network news, the Administration dropped its objections to the housing bill and the measure passed Congress.

“I think the hearings helped build the pressure,” Schumer said.

In fact, the first hearing was so successful in generating publicity for Schumer’s point of view that he held a second one recently in New York City, and made headlines again by proposing that the Department of Housing and Urban Development headquarters in Washington be used to shelter the homeless.

What made Schumer’s hearings even more remarkable was that the New York congressman actually chairs no official committee or subcommittee of Congress. He held the hearing instead in his role as leader of an unofficial Budget Committee “task force” on homelessness--a perfect example of how a young House member can create a forum for himself.

Schumer clearly sees his mode of operation as a way to gain favor with the leadership. He recalls that one of the first times former Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) ever called him by name was on a day after an appearance on the McNeil/Lehrer Newshour. “Millie (O’Neill’s wife) watched it,” O’Neill told Schumer, “and she told me you were very good and I ought to start paying attention to you.”

Share Determination

Although their goals may vary, many members share Schumer’s determination to make their mark as quickly as possible. As one Republican member recently told the Center for Responsive Politics: “I was most surprised by how wide open power is here. If you’re willing to go through enough doors, you can get something done.”

And the rewards for such commitment are often great. “The people who have the greatest following at home in their state or in their cause, the people who get the most invitations to make speeches, the people who emerge as presidential candidates--Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) comes to mind--are people who have played this kind of political game,” said Fazio. “They use their seat in Congress as a place to operate from.”

Even those with less vaulting ambitions face pressure to reach for power and prominence: as voters have become more independent and less loyal to political parties, members of Congress have learned they must rely on their own efforts to win reelection. And, under the present system, congressional leaders can do relatively little to reward or punish members where it counts most--with the voters back home on election day.

Not all young members of Congress are as successful as Schumer when they venture into the high-visibility world of congressional activism. A few years ago, for example, Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.), a contemporary of Schumer, came under heavy criticism from his Democratic colleagues when he sought unsuccessfully to negotiate a compromise with the Reagan Administration on aiding Nicaragua’s Contras.

And members of Congress show little patience for their young colleagues who have decided to make their mark by pressing a single-issue campaign, such as opposition to abortion. “I think what happens is these are people who galvanize public opinion on the outside, making the process that much more difficult inside,” Fazio said.

Intense media coverage encourages members of Congress to become more actively involved in these endeavors. Schumer clearly takes pride in his frequent appearances on television and relishes seeing himself quoted frequently in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Local News Coverage

No longer is television coverage focused only on congressional leaders and prominent committee chairmen. Now, with the growth in direct satellite broadcasting, local television stations closely follow the activities of their own congressmen.

The quest for media coverage clearly consumes some members. After Sen. Jake Garn (R-Utah) donated one of his kidneys to his ailing daughter, he recalled, “one colleague came up without saying anything else such as ‘How are you? How’s your daughter?’ and said, ‘Gee, you got great coverage on that, didn’t you?’ ”

Yet despite the increased television coverage, a majority of Americans still know very little about Congress or about the voting records of their own congressmen. Members complain bitterly that this vacuum of knowledge allows special-interest groups to galvanize public opinion around narrow causes, forcing their elected representatives to respond.

As Schumer noted: “How do you expect the average working man or woman to come home at 5 p.m., attend to their family and, after they put the kids to sleep, put their feet up and say, ‘Now let’s figure out how our congressman voted on the 41 bills that came before him this week?’ That allows a small group to overcome the general interest time after time.”

Special interest groups, Fazio said, encourage Americans to focus on small matters--"whether he’s against efforts to make animals die painlessly or something"--and ignore more important issues.

“There are a lot of people out there who figure out that maybe they can’t handle all the stuff about Soviet-American relations, so they decide ‘I’m going to just focus on what I care about,’ ” he said.

Ironically, many of the same factors that drive members to activism--their youth and enthusiasm--are also a part of what makes serving in Congress so difficult for them. Unlike their elders in Congress, these younger members face difficult demands of modern family life--young children, working spouses, limited incomes, mortgages and a strong desire to spend more time at home.

These family pressures quickly come into conflict with the long hours and demanding schedules of a member of Congress.

Almost 80% of the members questioned recently by the Center for Responsive Politics lamented that their legislative work left little time for family life. The center found vivid proof of this problem in the office of one unidentified Democrat, who had his infant child sleeping in a basket in his office during the interview. “You see,” he explained, “I’m a recent father but my wife has to work, so I keep the kid with me two afternoons a week.”

Schumer knows the problem well. With a wife and 3-year-old daughter still living in Brooklyn, he tries to fly home to them as many nights as possible. In fact, he spent most of the final days of the 1987 session worrying about whether he would be free to go home to take his daughter to see a scheduled performance by the “Sesame Street” character Big Bird.

An increasing number of members, like Schumer, do not move their families to Washington as they did in the past because they now must go home more often to meet with constituents. In Washington, Schumer shares a house with three other House members. But there is still no easy way to reconcile the competing demands of family and Congress.

Strains Family Life

“Members of Congress now have to build a personal following back home,” explained Mann. “They can’t depend just on the party. And so you find, compared to two decades ago, members of Congress spend much more time on airplanes; they go home a lot. They may move their family to Washington, but then they’re gone most of the time. When Congress is in session, they are in the chamber and on weekends and recesses they are back home. And so it puts enormous strains on family life.”

These pressures frequently are blamed for the high divorce rate in Congress. One Democrat told the Center for Responsive Policy he knew at least two members currently getting divorces because their congressional activities took too much time from their families.

The modern congressional life style, with its fast-paced existence and frequent trips to the home district, also puts a strain on relations between members of Congress. “We don’t know each other as well as we did 20 years ago,” said Fazio. “We’re running back and forth on airplanes. There is a lot of disassociation in this place that isn’t good.”

Financing an Irritant

Campaign financing is another major irritant for members of Congress, who frequently complain that they have to spend too much time raising the vast amounts of money required to run for reelection. In 1986, the average cost of a Senate race was $2.8 million; the average cost of a House race was $268,000.

Astonishingly, only about 20% of those members surveyed by the Center for Responsive Politics said that campaign contributions affect the results of legislative compromise. To prove their point, those who saw no connection between contributions and compromise noted that fund raising had almost no impact on the 1986 tax reform law.

To the contrary, however, Schumer argues that the budget deficit would be smaller with public financing of congressional elections. “For instance,” he said, “I think a lot of defense things, the big defense contractors throw around a lot of money, would be much more easily cut.”

Loyal to Institution

Yet despite the keen frustrations that many members feel these days, the problems of being a member of Congress have not seriously shaken their loyalty to the institution. In fact, most members seem to share Schumer’s exuberance for the role that they play.

“I’m happy where I am right now,” said Schumer. “My goals are issue-oriented. I want to change trade policy away from protectionism, away from doing nothing towards reciprocity. I want to get more substance back in government. I want to rebuild housing. I hope to have a long, fulfilling career in government. Then I can retire to be a professor in some town somewhere with my wife and I can enjoy my grandchildren.”

Even Sen. Daniel J. Evans (R-Wash.), whose decision to step down at the end of this year was widely viewed as a repudiation of the Senate, said he still reveres the institution. “I’ve got great respect for it,” he said. “My dismay is because I really respect it so much and I believe it ought to be what it once was and really should be.”

Evans’ departure from the Senate can best be explained by his previous success as governor of Washington state for 12 years. As Evans sees it, some people are cut out to be legislators and others to be executives, and he includes himself in the latter category. He noted that former governors like himself often have trouble adjusting to Congress.

“I can’t remember a day in those 12 years that I didn’t get up in the morning looking forward to going to work,” Evans said. “As governor, you have a chance to control the agenda. One of the frustrations in the Senate is to find that you are so often measured in what you do simply by a collection of yes and no votes.”

Tough Reelection Battle

Likewise, Sens. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.) and Trible, who also expressed frustration in announcing their plans to retire later this year, have other reasons. Trible escaped a bruising reelection battle against Virginia’s former Democratic Gov. Charles S. Robb; Chiles was being challenged by Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), a popular figure in his home state.

In fact, statistics suggest that congressional retirements have hit an historic low, and nearly 87% of those questioned by the Center for Responsive Politics said they would like to stay in Congress for at least 14 years.

“They may be frustrated, but they’re not leaving,” said Ornstein. “What they get from their friends who have gone out and are practicing law or doing other things, is that the work is pretty boring compared to Congress. So despite the bitching and moaning, it’s still a pretty interesting and exciting job.”

Next: The budget process: A breakdown in machinery or a lack of will?