Washington Pots and Kettles

October 27, 1991

"Congress is in trouble as an institution. No one doubts it. In poll after poll, Americans describe Congress as wasteful, inefficient. . . Staffs have mushroomed from 2,000 in 1947 to about 12,000. . . The number of committees has grown out of control, creating a maze of overlapping jurisdictions and spreading members too thin."

Who said that?

If your answer is President Bush, as part of his astounding tirade against Congress on Thursday, you are wrong. The author is Sen. David Boren, D-Okla., one of the more influential poobahs on Capitol Hill, who last summer set about trying to institute needed reforms.

What set Mr. Bush off, and proved to be the focus of his assault, was "the circus and travesty" of the Clarence Thomas hearings. But he went on from there to criticize Congress generally as a "privileged class of rulers" that exempts itself from laws it imposes on others, is accountable to no one for its perks and is in thrall to special-interest groups and its own bloated bureaucracy.

This was a delicious example of a soot-encrusted pot calling the kettle black.

Mr. Bush was right on the mark in asserting that Congress can hardly do the people's business with its 300 committees and subcommittees and an overall working staff he put at 40,000 people. The place just grows and grows. Top Senate committees asked 20 percent budget boosts this year while government, overall, was going up only 2.5 percent. There are an estimated 48 employees for every member of Congress. The congressional budget has soared from $131 million in 1960 to $2.2 billion this year!

But what about the White House staff? When Teddy Roosevelt was president during the first decade of this century, he commanded a staff of 35. Ronald Reagan's staff, in contrast, totaled 3,366 -- almost a 1,000 percent increase -- eight decades later. Franklin D. Roosevelt's "core staff" in the Thirties numbered 14. By Mr. Reagan's time, it was figured at 568 people. Many White House staffers exert enormous power yet do not even have to be confirmed by the Senate. Like members of Congress, they also are exempt from many laws applied to every other United States citizen.

The White House structure is a system that gave us Watergate and Iran-contra, when presidential personnel considered themselves above the law or constitutional constraints. The congress structure is a system that produced a House bank where members could cash bum checks, a House restaurant where members did not have to pay bills, a Senate that produced the Keating Five and, lately, confirmation hearings that dismay the country.

While Washington's politicians jockey for partisan advantage out this mess, we welcome this latest war between the Republican White House and the Democratic Congress. If it forces either institution, or both, to heal itself even a little, the nation would be the better for it.

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