The 102nd Congress

January 03, 1991

This is Day One for the 102nd Congress, and the problems pile up even even before it assembles. The legislative branch seems hobbled in dealing with war and peace in the Persian Gulf, with recession after years of deficit financing, with its own ethics and methods of doing business. The same public that keeps re-electing incumbents holds them in such low esteem that Congress, as an institution, faces a crisis of confidence.

Much of the problem is internal and structural. For the past three decades the number of committees and subcommittees has proliferated at such a rate that many strung-out lawmakers find themselves prisoners of their own staffers, many of whom have their own private agendas.

One experiment after another in the art of budget-making has proved a failure. So much so that today the Congress is in a straitjacket of its own making when it comes to creative financing and creative legislating. There is no pump to prime a well gone dry. The Gramm-Rudman fiasco is mercifully assigned to three years of hibernation, its repeatedly punctured deficit targets abandoned.

Along with Gramm-Rudman, the much-heralded War Powers Act of 1973 is another monument to congressional futility. With the unfolding of the Iraqi crisis, the congressional leadership has had little interest in putting its own government under an arbitrary deadline for withdrawing troops that would play into Saddam Hussein's hands. Congress is groping for some role in the Gulf, though to date there is no consensus on whether it should support or restrain the president. This should be the 102nd's first big test.

"I don't have time to think," is a common lament on Capitol Hill. Members are caught up in a perpetual re-election campaign, which leads to an excessive reliance on political contributors, as the current Keating Five hearings so graphically illustrate. Democrats are reluctant to place limits on PACs or Republicans on deep-pockets individuals. Instead they have formed an Incumbent Protection Society, while the public seethes. Before the election, opinion polls revealed that less than one-third of the American people approved of what Congress was doing as a body; yet 96 percent of incumbents standing for re-election won their races. Such is the power of the slick, expensive television commercial.

The 102nd Congress could perform no finer task than to put its own house in order. By trimming its own bureaucracy. By eliminating unnecessary subcommittees. By reforming campaign financing. By giving the president line-item veto powers in exchange for stronger legislative oversight on prior-authorized spending. Only after a structural overhaul will Congress be able to fulfill its constitutional potential.

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