By Sam Walker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
The United States Capitol is a drafty old building filled with portraits of people wearing powdered wigs and stovepipe hats. It's a setting where even the status quo can seem radical.
But despite the tug of tradition here, and plenty of legislative setbacks, the Republican-led 104th Congress has left an enduring mark on how this staid institution operates.
Its reforms include new restrictions on gifts and lobbying, a streamlined staff and committee structure, a line-item veto, and a bill forcing Congress to abide by its own laws. Although these changes might seem Lilliputian next to some of the reforms that didn't pass, like term limits and campaign finance reform, they've already begun to change the way Congress works. Most analysts agree that when it decamps next month, the 104th Congress will rank as one of the most reformist in decades. "These changes are very significant," says Tim Penny, a former Democratic congressman from Minnesota. "You'd have to look back at least 20 years or more to find a Congress that's done as much." The main engine of reform was the House of Representatives, where a young and brash class of mostly Republican freshmen came in ready to broom the cobwebs. On the first day of the 104th, the House passed a dizzying array of structural reforms. Three standing committees and 25 subcommittees were eliminated, staff levels were reduced by one-third, and the congressional budget was slashed by 10 percent. Committee chairmen and the Speaker were given term limits, proxy voting in committees was banned, and more meetings were opened to reporters. In addition, new rules made it easier for members with low seniority to propose bills, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich dealt the ages-old seniority system a blow when he appointed junior members to lead committees. In recent weeks, Republicans have discussed revamping or even eliminating the Appropriations and Agriculture Committees, which some see as founts of pork and patronage. The result is a leaner, more centralized system that gave Speaker Gingrich far more power to control the agenda and prevent committees from becoming independent fiefdoms. "The obvious benefit is that a Speaker who wants to get things done can make Congress more efficient," says Mickey Edwards, a former Oklahoma Republican congressman. "If Congress moves more decisively, it makes it easier to challenge the executive branch." While Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution believes that these changes are a net positive, he notes that they can also backfire. House Republican leaders gained so much power over committees, he argues, that many hearings were eliminated or rushed to completion, and task forces were often given enormous responsibilities. "In its zeal to act quickly," Mr. …