Fewer Committees, Other Reforms Urged for Congress

Article excerpt

THE real reason Washington has not gotten much done in recent years is government gridlock: The Republican president and the Democratic Congress could not work together.

Now that the Democrats have captured the White House, this line of reasoning goes, legislation will flow smoothly through Congress. Therefore, a major reform of the way the legislature works is not so urgent after all, at least not until one-party rule is given a shot.

Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein respectfully disagree.

Such a sentiment, anticipated by these two leading congressional scholars as they release their first in a series of reports on "Renewing Congress," reflects a misguided notion of what makes government effective, they say.

"If American government is to work well, it needs a strong, active, assertive president and an equally strong, active, and assertive Congress," says Mr. Mann, a Brookings Institution fellow.

This will be especially crucial at the outset of the Clinton administration, when fast action on the president's program may well depend on the ability of the House of Representatives to set an agenda and then carry it out, the report notes.

Americans' frustration with Congress, which has deteriorated from a "healthy skepticism" to "corrosive cynicism," also makes action necessary, write Mann and Mr. Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Congress's problems are legion: legislation going through too many committees; long periods of inaction, punctuated by bursts of activity in which important legislation often gets scuttled; too many committee assignments; weak party leaders; a tendency toward cheap political shots; and not enough serious deliberation on important issues of the day.

The drumbeat for reform has been building all year, and Mann and Ornstein's first report, which focuses on the House, will add to the dialogue. Some of their proposals jibe with those put out by the Democratic Caucus Committee on Organization, Study, and Review (OSR), which are expected to be approved when the Democratic members of the new House gather next month. …