The Dog That Didn't Bark: Who Put the Muzzle on Congressional Reform?

Article excerpt

Disgusted by twin scandals at the House Bank and Post Office, voters in 1992 sent a clear message to Washington: The American people wanted sweeping congressional reform.

The signs of voter discontent were unmistakable. Dozens of incumbents fell to surprise defeats in their own primaries or the November elections. Term limits were on the ballot in 14 states in 1992, and were approved in each, generally by huge margins. Public opinion polls showed enormous support for other changes as well: For Congress to obey the same civil rights and workplace safety laws it imposed on other Americans; to control runaway federal spending; and particularly for Congress to cut its own budget, staff, and perks.

Politicians said they understood. Even before the 1992 elections, the House voted overwhelmingly to close its much-abused bank and to turn over its post office and other functions to a non-partisan administrator. Together the House and Senate created a Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress to reform and streamline Congress's committees, budget process, and working procedures.

Congressional candidates were even more adamant about reform. For more than half of the 110 freshmen elected to the House in November 1992, reform was the leading campaign issue.

BUSINESS AS USUAL

But two years later, little about the Congress has changed. Term limits never even came up for a vote. A balanced budget amendment was defeated, and lesser budget changes sidetracked. Efforts to cut staff, budget, and committees made negligible progress. A measure to apply several employment laws to Congress was approved by the House, but left so many loopholes as to be no threat to business as usual. The non-partisan administrator hired to clean-up House operations quit, complaining that top Congressmen made his job impossible to do, and the selection of a replacement has been delayed by wrangling over changes in the position's charter.

Possibly as a result of Congress's failure to reform its operations, Congress's substantive performance has been a disappointment as well, leading to the probability of another anti-incumbent election with another large freshman class.

But as voters are once again throwing the rascals out, they might contemplate what went wrong last time. Why didn't Congress, under obvious electoral pressure and with a huge infusion of new blood, do a better job at achieving the clear desires of American voters?

NO COMMITMENTS

The answer is that the leadership in Congress--Republican as well as Democratic--many of the senior members, and a disappointing number of the 1992 freshmen were not truly committed to reform. Lacking an overwhelming push by the rank-and-file and the public, the barons of the imperial Congress were able to stop reform in its tracks. Their most effective roadblocks were the hijacking of the Joint Reform Committee, the transformation of reform from a bipartisan to a partisan issue, and leadership control of the floor agenda.

Initially there were high hopes for the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress. House and Senate leaders chose as the panel's chairmen and co-chairmen Senators David Boren and Pete Domenici and Representatives Lee Hamilton and William Gradison, moderates respected by both parties who were known to have genuine concerns about the functioning of Congress. The leaders of the committee announced an aggressive schedule aimed at House and Senate action on a reform package in the fall of 1993.

Unfortunately, in making other appointments to the 24-member Joint Committee, the congressional leadership of George Mitchell, Robert Dole, Thomas Foley, and Robert Michel acted like a bankrupt corporation appointing a committee of its own executives to determine what went wrong instead of hiring independent auditors. House Speaker Thomas Foley, for instance, insisted that only sitting members serve on the reform panel, even though retired members have been among the most intelligent critics of the Congress. …