How Do-Gooders Made the Congress Worse

EUGENE J. McCARTHY

December 29, 1992|By EUGENE J. McCARTHY

The history of congressional government over the last 5 years can properly be divided into two periods: BCC and ACC, Before Common Cause and After Common Cause.

In the approximately 25 years from 1946 to 1970, and the founding of Common Cause, Congress operated largely under the provisions of the 1946 Reorganization Act, of which Speaker Sam Rayburn was reported to have said its two best provisions were the salary increase for members of Congress and the retirement program.

In that period, sometimes with the support of the executive branch, sometimes in opposition, Congress paid off debts remaining from World War II, met the costs of the Korean War, initiated and financed the Marshall Plan and the NATO support program, extended the Social Security program to include nearly all United States citizens, established and financed Medicare and Medicaid (the federal portion), built and paid for the Interstate Highway system, balanced the budget in a number of years, and allowed an increase in the national debt of less than $150 billion in more than 20 years. Scandals were few, limited largely to personal misconduct without any serious prejudice or threat to the operations of the House or the Senate.

All this was done with the powerful House Rules Committee in place, with seniority rules generally operative, with neither a House nor Senate code of ethics in place, and without the federal election amendments of 1975-76 limiting campaign contributions and prescribing other purifying controls over the elective process. Members returned to their states and districts when Congress was out of session, risking conflict of interest with their farms or businesses or professions.

The primary constitutional responsibilities, those of the Senate for foreign policy and of the House of Representatives for fiscal matters, were generally recognized and honored. Revenue bills not only originated in the House, but were offered to the membership under strict rules, and no serious tampering with tax bills was allowed in the Senate. Tax measures passed in these years were essentially what the House Ways and Means Committee recommended. The primary responsibility of the Senate for foreign policy was generally respected.

Then came the 1970s, and reformers -- led, sustained, aided and abetted by the League of Women Voters and especially by Common Cause, with support and encouragement from the press. By the end of the '70s, power and responsibility -- which had previously been exercised by the Speaker of the House, by the Rules Committee, and by chairmen and senior members of House and Senate committees -- was widely dispersed among a greater number of committees and subcommittees. Office staff and committee staff were greatly increased.

Leaders of both the House and the Senate acknowledged that their positions of leadership had been seriously eroded. Power was minimized and scattered. Responsibility was scarcely to be found.

In 1974, the House membership limited the power of the Ways and Means Committee. In 1975, the House attacked the principle of seniority as a basis for determining who should be chairmen of committees and subcommittees.

The Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 took power not only from the chairmen of appropriations committees, but also from other standing committees -- and even from the House of Representatives, in that it established a joint committee with the Senate on spending and tax policy.

The House by this action gave up its clear constitutional and traditional responsibility. In an attempt to make up for the failure of the Budget Control Act, Congress in 1985 passed the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction law. But budget deficits have been greater in the years following the budget reforms than at any time in the country's history.

The reformers also turned to the political process, on the assumption, it appears, that reforms in other areas could not work unless the procedure by which members of Congress were chosen was also reformed. As a result amendments to the Federal Election Act were adopted in 1975-76.

The law proposed to eliminate or alleviate the evil effects of money by limiting personal contributions, providing government financing and legitimizing corporate political-action committees (PACs).The amount of money spent in campaigns has grown significantly since the amendments were adopted. Common Cause is now soliciting contributions to challenge the PACs set up by the law it supported in Congress in 1975.

More reform was to come. From 1977 to 1979, with starts and stops, advances and retreats, the House of Representatives and the Senate each adopted a code of ethics. Since adoption of the codes and other reforms, there have been more cases of moral and legal failure on the part of members of Congress than in the preceding quarter-century -- such things as the conduct

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