Congress set to undergo 'cleansing' Self-conscious Congress may end several perks.

March 26, 1992|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- Feeling the fury of voter outrage, congressional leaders are calling for reforms big and small -- from higher prices in the Senate restaurant to potentially far-reaching changes in how the people's business is done here

"I think Congress needs to give itself a bath," Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., said. "Periodic cleansing is something we all need to go through."

Moving in quick succession yesterday, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine, announced he is reviewing a series of Senate perks and contracting practices. Some changes already have been made, Mr. Mitchell said: The cost of haircuts at the Senate barber shop has gone up, while serving hours at the Senate restaurants will be cut and prices increased.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley of Washington endorsed a plan to appoint a bipartisan commission that could recommend long-term reforms to make Congress function more efficiently. The changes could range from cutting staff to simplifying the complex budget process.

For the immediate future, Mr. Foley said he and Republican Leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois will name a separate bipartisan panel to recommend changes in the administration of House support services.

The moves by Mr. Foley and Mr. Mitchell came one day after Sen. Warren B. Rudman, R-N.H., announced he would not seek a third term because he was fed up with Capitol Hill's repeated failure to deal with the federal deficit and other problems.

"Our inability to deal with things in Congress is as frustrating as hell," Mr. Rudman told President Bush in a telephone conversation. "It seems that we just can't work together anymore."

A bipartisan congressional reform commission could open the way for the first major overhaul of the legislative branch since 1975, when members elected in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal diluted the power of party leaders and committee chairmen.

The reform commission proposal was made last summer by Sens. David L. Boren, D-Okla. and Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., with Reps. Lee H. Hamilton, D-Ind., and Bill Gradison, R-Ohio. Ignored at first, it picked up strong support as a result of the House bank debacle.

"Members are now calling us -- rather than we calling them -- to support our bill," Mr. Hamilton said.

The reform group has no set agenda, but individual members have called for reducing congressional staff, eliminating committee overlap and simplifying decisions on budgeting and spending. Even many members admit they cannot follow the budget process.

The reformers believe that a less convoluted Congress would be more responsive to the public.

"The banking problem . . . really is symptomatic of a broader institutional need for restructuring," said Mr. Boren, the unofficial leader of the group.

"It's not only a matter of whether there are a few thousand dollars or even a few million dollars of benefits that members shouldn't receive," he added. "It's the broader question of how we are handling billions of dollars of the taxpayers' money."

The commission would be created through a joint resolution of Congress and would probably not begin its work until after the elections.

A group of Republicans also called for creating an inspector general's office in the House.

As Mr. Foley lifted his objections, Mr. Mitchell was undertaking a review of several Senate perks -- including free medical treatment and prescription drugs in the Capitol dispensary.

At this point, it is not clear whether senators are willing to surrender such freebies. And Mr. Mitchell himself did not appear delighted by the prospect of having to deny them to members.

But last week Mr. Foley had announced he was putting an end to free drugs for House members from the Navy-run dispensary, while noting that senators, Capitol police and some congressional staffers still would be entitled to them.

That put the onus on Mr. Mitchell to examine the Senate's practice of providing such perquisites.

Mr. Mitchell said he already has cracked down on several perks. The Senate sergeant-at-arms, he said, no longer fixes members' parking tickets with the District of Columbia.

Prices for haircuts and coifs at the Senate barber shop and beauty parlor also have been increased to reflect prices charged at commercial outlets, Mr. Mitchell said.

And he said he has directed Senate administrators to seek competitive bids on most contracts for supplies and services and is working with the General Accounting Office to tighten controls over Senate accounts.

Mr. Mitchell also will curtail, starting April 6, the hours that Senate restaurants serving senators, the public and the press will be open. Prices for menu items and food catering services also will be raised.

A tuna sandwich in the restaurant now costs $3.50; a club sandwich, $4.95. New prices have not yet been established.

Mr. Mitchell also praised Mr. Boren and Mr. Domenici for their efforts to streamline the workings of Congress.

"It's a reality," he added, "that institutions and policies outlive the reasons for which they are created."

Haircut prices going up

WASHINGTON -- Here are the Senate perks that Democratic leaders may terminate:

* Free physician services at the Capitol dispensary.

* Free prescription drugs for senators.

In addition:

* The cost of haircuts and styling at the Senate barber shop and beauty parlor have been increased to match prices at commercial shops.

* Menu and catering prices at the Senate restaurant also will be increased, starting April 6.

* The two Senate restaurants -- one for senators and the other for the public and press -- will be closed for business at 3:30 p.m. each day, rather than staying open as long as the Senate itself is in session.

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