The No-Reform Congress

October 04, 1994

"It appears likely this Congress, billed as 'the reform Congress,' is likely to adjourn as 'the no- reform Congress,' " said a bitter Sen. David Boren last week as the Senate voted against ending a Republican filibuster on a campaign finance reform bill, thus killing it. Senator Boren, an Oklahoma Democrat, has been pushing this legislation for several years. His failure to get it enacted is one reason he is resigning from Congress next month to become president of the University of Oklahoma.

Majority Leader George Mitchell, who is also quitting the Senate, was even more bitter in his condemnation of the system Senator Boren wants to change. "It stinks!" he said. "Money dominates the system. Money is the system." He's right, but we are not sure his and Senator Boren's "reform" was just what the system needs. The central feature of the now-dead bill was the use of federal funds to subsidize the campaigns of congressional candidates -- under rules and regulations that could handicap challengers to incumbents. That these intelligent and honorable senators believe the American people think the cure for what ails Congress is a new entitlement for politicians shows how out of touch Washington has become.

It now appears that the most this Congress will be able to come up with in the way of internal reforms are a limit on lobbyists' favors to members and the application to Congress of some of the workplace laws it imposes on private employers. Both measures have been approved by the House and may also be approved this week by the Senate. Both bills have loopholes, but they do seem to improve things for the better.

Senator Boren's real target of outrage ought to have been not the failure of campaign finance legislation -- but of the omnibus congressional reform bill. A special Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress was created in 1992, a direct result of the public's anger at the House post office and bank scandals, among other things. Senator Boren and Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., headed a group composed of an equal number of Democrats and Republicans. They came up with a good list of changes of rules, procedures and staffing that would make Congress more open, efficient, fair, ethical and less costly.

There was a real constituency for real reform. A committee poll of representatives and senators found that 90 percent wanted "major improvements" in the way Congress works. They wanted such things as two-year budgets, reduced staff, fewer subcommittee assignments, fairer floor procedures, automatic "sunsetting" of all entitlement programs, thus guaranteeing periodic thorough review. When Senator Boren tried to get a vote on the original committee proposal last week, he was prevented by a fellow Democrat's raising of a point of order. Congress isn't ready for reform, which is probably why the electorate is thought by many observers to be about ready to oust incumbents on a wholesale basis -- just as they did in 1992.

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