Congress is a Mess

August 07, 1991

Is Congress in trouble? Four veterans of Capitol Hill, with 70 years of experience among them, think there is no question that the institution is a bureaucratic and procedural mess.

Consider these astounding figures:

* Since 1947, congressional staff has increased six-fold, from 2,000 employees to 12,000.

* During the same period, the number of committees has increased eight-fold, from 38 to almost 300. Congressional alarm-ringers says the system is out of control, "creating a maze of overlapping jurisdictions and spreading members too thin."

* Almost 7,000 bills were introduced last year, with average lengths five times longer than in 1970, yet only 3 percent were enacted. "Large staffs tend to generate their own agendas. . . with a far greater tendency to micromanage every area of government," according to the four legislators.

* Committees have almost doubled in size, with each senator averaging 4.8 full committee assignments compared with 2.8 slots in 1957. Virtually every Democrat in the Senate bears the title of Mr. or Madame Chairman. About one-third of House Democrats can also preen themselves in this way.

Members of Congress often complain that they are prisoners of their staffs, that they have no time to think, that they have to follow impossible schedules in dealing with legislative responsibilities and insistent demands of constituents.

Yet the lure of power keeps most members coming back. Campaign financing arrangements, mail franking privileges and the use of office perks tend to turn Congress into an Incumbents Protective Association. So-called reforms of the 1960s and 1970s, allegedly designed to combat an Imperial Presidency, have created an Imperial Congress, ironically one in which the leadership and once-powerful full committee chairmen have ceded too much authority to subcommittees with their own special-interest agendas and staff.

"Congress is bogged down in a morass of detail, missing the big picture and slow to respond to our real problems," according to Sen. David Boren, D-Okla., who along with Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., and Rep. Willis Gradison, D-Ohio, has proposed a bipartisan committee to offer "comprehensive, bicameral reforms."

Despite this indictment, chances for real reform are marginal. Senate leaders are providing only lip service and House leaders seem disinclined to take on their rank and file. Few members want to contemplate reductions in staff that would be painful and diminish their own sense of clout. No wonder the executive )) branch is in the ascendancy.

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