By any standard, the Joint Economic Committee isn't your typical congressional panel. It has absolutely no legislative power, or even a formally assigned meeting room. It almost never takes a vote, though it issues reams of reports. It's the only committee in Congress to have its own logo. And while new members vie to get on it, few seem really satisfied later.
For most of the past 32 years, th JEC has served uniquely as Congress' economic conscience. It was the JEC, for example, which provided Congress' virtually only real debate over broad economic policies. It was the JEC that called the Federal Reserve Board to task and brought in outside economists for the law makers to question. When the JEC spoke, everybody listened.
Now, however, the panel has lost much of its influence and its central role. A more sophisticated Congress has shifted the broad economic debate to other quarters. The committee's educational function largely has been taken over by other agencies. And the new, more-conservative law makers increasingly are turned off by what they consider the panel's too-ideological tone.
Today, the JEC is a congressional actor in search of a role. Although Rep. Richard Bolling (D-Mo.), the panel's current chairman, has tried to steer the committee away from its gadfly image, the question of what - if anything - the JEC should do has begun to trouble many members of Congress. The key issue is, should the committed finally be abolished?
There are these developments:
Creation of the new congressional budget process in 1974 has shifted the broad economic debate in Congress to the House and Senate budget committees, which actually have the legislative power to follow up on their policy prescriptions. Although the JEC technically contributes to this by making recommendations to the budget panels, its pronouncements generally seem to be ignored.
The JEC's traditional "educational" role in explaining economics to members has been taken over by the new Congressional Budget Office, which issues dozens of issue papers backed up by hard-nosed analysis that the committee hasn't the staff or equipment to provide. And the JEC's hearings have become almost superfluous. Most witnesses usually have appeared elsewhere.
The committee's longtime prestige has been steadily eroded by the view that the panel too often has served as a mouthpiece for liberal Democratic economic doctrine - which grates on many newer members. The panel's semiannual "reports" are predictable: They always endorse easier fiscal and monetary policies and flirt with wage-price controls.
Indeed, the panel's recommendations frequently seem to reflect the views of its staff, not the committee's members. Reports each year brim with so many footnotes expressing members' dissents to staff conclusions that often it's hard to detect any consensus. "You feel you're a captive of the staff," says one longtime member who frequently disagrees with the substance of the reports.
The panel's image has deteriorated in recent years amid the perception that members too often have used the committee as a vehicle for publicity seeking. In 1976, the panel was turned into a one-group campaign committee to promote the Humphrey-Hawkins "full employment" bill. And Senate members regularly use it as a base to issue press releases about almost anything.
As a result, the committee's influence has diminished steadily, both in Congress itself and with whatever administration is in power. "The White House used to sit up and take notice whenever we recommended anything," laments one veteran JEC member. "Now, they just shrug us off." Even the press now gives the JEC's reports far less attention.
The committee has suffered from a staff drainoff, with several of its key economists moving to jobs in the Carter administration - mostly in the Commerce Department. Included are Courtenay Slater, the panel's experienced chief economist, Jerry Jasinowski and William Cox. Staff chief John Stark has filled some of these jobs, but insiders saythe continuity has been broken.
The panel's decline marked a steady erosion from its heady - and influential - days of earlier years. In the early 1950s and 1960s, the committee was a major forum for bringing the views of leading private economists to Congress - and an influential congressional adviser, to boot.It also fought the good fight - and won - on several major economic issues:
Under Sen. Paul Douglas (D-Ill.) as chairman, for example, the panel stoutly defended the now-historic Treasury-Federal Reserve Accord - establishing the precedent of a fully independent monetary authority. Ironically, the committee's most smashing success was a conservative one: In the early 1950s, it persuaded Congress to raise taxes to finance the Korean war.
It also proved pivotal in the Nixon administration's August, 1971, decision to close the gold window and free the dollar from the Bretton Woods fixed exchange rate system. The White House had been apprehensive about how such a step might be received, when a JEC subcommittee paved the way by formally recommending the move. Two weeks later, Nixon cut the Bretton woods tie.
The JEC began sliding in the late 1960s when then chairman Wright Patman (D-Tex.) started using it as a sounding board for his populist, low-interest-rate economic philosophy. Later, Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) turned the committee into what one member calls "a mimeograph machine" of press releases, issuing reports at the drop of a hat - timed for Sunday papers.
The panel's penchant for headline-grabbing still troubles some members. Along with its regular reports and issue papers, the JEC publishes one of the few congressional committee newsletters - a biweekly roadside filled with quotes from members unabashedly designed to promote their views and speeches. At the same time, outsiders grouse that some of the staff analysis has gotten sloppy.
Bolling, who took over as chairman last year under the system of rotating chairmanships (ranking representative one year, ranking senator the next), has tried to trim the committee somewhat by toning down its image and concentrating on quieter, long-term economic issues. "Since he took over, we haven't been exhorted to get out one press release by tomorrow," an insider says.
In this year's spring report, for example, Bolling successfully pressed JEC staffers not to issue their usual strident call for substantially more fiscal stimulus. He also headed off a sure-to-be-controversial staff proposal on monetary policy that would have urged the Fed to push interest rates below the 1977 average. The result: a more balanced - and credible - report.
But in the minds of many observers, that still hasn't been enough to revive any real role for the committee to play in the face of the newly entrenched budget process. Despite its trimmmed-back status, the JEC still has an annual budget of $1.8 million and employs 46 staffers. (The panel has 20 members - 12 Democrats and eight Republicans, divided between House and Senate.)
During House consideration of the Humphrey-Hawkins bill last month, Bolling tried to set up a new economic policymaking process (using the JEC as its centerpiece) that would rival the new congressional budget process - but the move was beaten back on the floor. Many observers interpreted the slap as further evidence of the distrust with which the panel is viewed by House members.
The question is, what should be the future of the once-proud Joint Economic Committeee? Abolish it, as some members now seem to be arguing, or redirect it toward a more serious, analytical role?Bolling insists the committee still has a valid place in the new scheme, playing Capitol Hill's Council of Economic Advisers to the budget committees' function as Office of Management and Budget.
He also believes that, despite the House vote on the Humphrey-Hawkins bill, there will have to be some congressional watchdog to make sure the measure's economic goal-setting is carried out - and that means the JEC if it means any committee.
The difficulty is, Bolling may be fighting a losing battle - if only because the law makers, who generally view the Congress more in terms of where the power is, are getting used to relying on the budget committees. "There are very few people who remember the role of the JEC," Bolling concedes. "My guess is that our role will remain very much as is."
Still, if th JEC is to continue, it's clear that Bolling and other panel members are going to have to find a new role for it. As things now stand, a growing number of House and Senate members are beginning to feel that the JEC has become just another congressional appendage - duplicating the hearings and reports of the budget committees and CBO.
In the views of many obsevers, re-establishing that niche may prove to be the JEC's biggest challenge. Or possibly its last.