CONGRESS is back in town. But before members of the House and Senate attempt to tackle issues involving the country and the world, they must take a close look at their own congressional problems - problems of performance, of structure and of attitude.
The public's interest in Capitol Hill is not in any congressional accomplishments but in the failures - the Korean lobbying scandal; the faint perfumed aroma left from last year's Wayne Hays affair; the booming congressional payroll; the bursting office buildings; the overseas junketing; the hidden office accounts; the existence of outside incomes and the alleged conflicts of interest.
Beyond these problems, Congress has become dated. It has watched the executive grow in size and impotently suffers from power envy.Congressional staffs and committees proliferated - the result was that the legislators tried to do too much and squandered what power they did have.
It has gotten so bad that a member of either body has two to five subcommittee sessions each morning, along with afternoon meetings with constituents, lobbyists and staff mixed in with hasty trips to the floor for votes. What has disappeared in the process is the necessary time to study issues, listen to debates and just plan think.
Congress suffers from myopia and has failed to see the inherent changes in news coverage - which have resulted in a vastly different public view of Capitol hill. In the good old days, when newspapers and magazines ruled the media, congressional correspondents sat in th galleries taking down every word and turned out extensive stories recreating dramatic daily debates.
Then electronic news appeared, first radio, later television. Both were barred from live coverage of those debates that had interest readers for years.
Thus, radio and television, the very news systems which helped to make Presidents supreme, have been prohibited by Congress from the possibility of doing something commensurate for it. Lost Glories
CONGRESS has not always been in such a sad shape. In the first quarter of this century, Capitol Hill was supreme. Woodrow Wilson, while still a university professor, felt compelled to write a book attacking "Congressional Government."
Since 1933, however, when Franklin D. Roosevelt took over the White House, the executive branch - often riding on the nation's airwaves - became pre-eminent.
Today, even the legislators act as if the second-rank role has been always their lot. House members seek "promotion" to the Senate; senators at their first - and second and third - opportunity run for the presidency.
Now, for the first time since FDR, there may be a chance for the Congress to reclaim some power.
The new President is unfamiliar with the ways of Washington. The public and even the new President appear determined to cut down on the majesty that has accrued to the White House.
The question is: Are the legislators and their new leaders, House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill (D-Mass.) and Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) prepared to seize this opportunity?
Pushed by recent scandals, both houses of Congress have had committees and commissions struggling to develop procedural changes. The solutions so far are not dramatic - and neither are the new leaders.
After watching Congress for almost 15 years as a journalist - and working there briefly twice as a staffer - I have come to appreciate the balance, the brakes and the occasional irrationality that Capitol Hill brings to government. One should not underestimate its good effect on an overly efficient and too-powerful executive branch.
A bumbling congressional opposition to the Vietnam War inhibited wider military escalation. Fear of congressional questioning and exposure kept former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover from expanding secret wiretapping. Even Richard Nixon's palace guard kept a nervous eye on Capitol Hill. Historic Opportunity
BUT IF Congress is to take advantage of its historic opportunity, there are eight basic reforms it must undertake - as a beginning.
1. Members of Congress must decide on what role they play - then reshape their work accordingly.
Today, like it or not, they are primarily ombudsmen for constituents; secondly, they are overseers of governmental operations; and only thereafter are they rewriters rather than architects of new laws.
The electorate, particularly for House members, has recognized the new emphasis for Congress. It re-elects a higher percentage of incumbents all the time, often neglecting party affiliation. Voting records mean less in congressional elections than they did years ago. Polls taken in 1976 on behalf of Democratic freshmen who won in 1974 in previously GOP districts showed "constituent services and district activities" were prime reasons for re-election.
The cold fact is that more and more voters seek aid from their legislators in handling their problems with the federal government.
Casework, which once was handled in a House or Senate office by one or two secretaries, has become the prime activity for the staffs of almost every member.
This has led to a push for increased staff to handle the legislative work that once was done by people now occupied by constituent services. To provide a source of new staff, new committees and subcommittees, some with little justification, have been created.
2. Congress must cut back on committees and subcommittees.
To solve what it said was one problem - lack of professional expertise - Congress has created another. With 170 or more committees and subcommittees in each house, dozens meet each day. Members, other than chairpersons, attend infrequently. Almost evry subcommittee, to justify its existence, churns out reports or legislation which clog the mails and the floor calendar and accomplish little except to send Congress off in hundreds of different directions.
As one example, in the past three years the size and cost of House committee staffs have almost doubled. The cost now stands at six times what was spent 10 years ago.
Both houses of Congress are attempting to wrestle with this problem. The Senate has come up with a complicated plan that calls for some reductions. It also requires some realignment of committee jurisdictions - but no chairperson wants to give up authority.
Perhaps a better approach is one being talked about in the House. There discussion centers on taking standing committees, with their overlapping jurisdictions, and creeating from them special temporary committees to handle specific legislative problems. The new wrinkle is that the temporary committee dissolves on a date certain.
Thus, energy legislation, which in recent years bounced from one congressional committee to another, could be handled under this new system through one temporary energy committee established from the membership of already standing committees.
Congress toady would be better off if it took a leaf from Jimmy Carter's rhetoric and established a zero-based subcommittee system. Start each new session with the roughly 40 regular standing committees. Set up subcommittees needed to handle required business - such as budget authorization and appropriations. Any other subcommittees would be created to handle specific problems with the understanding they had to be dissolved before additional new committees were created.
3. Committee meetings need to be coordinated. Hearings should be planned so that public and the legislators are educated rather than confused.
The tasks for Congress - other than constituent service - can be simply stated as approving the budget, performing oversight on existing programs, investigating areas that may need new legislation and reviewing and rewriting proposed laws. Better News Coverage
A COMMITTEE cutback could permit a rational approach for all committee hearings. The budget act sets time limits for approval of the President's money requests. Almost all hearings in the early part of the year could be directed at various aspects of the budget. Since there would be fewer committee sessions, the news coverage would be better. Journalists would be diverted by the three-ring circus resulting today because a one-shot hearing with a gangster is held at the same time that an errant sub-cabinet bureaucrat is brought to task while across the Capitol a drug manufacturer and Medicare rip-off artist are having their day before the television cameras.
While the circus takes place these days, the routine review of governement goes on in hearing rooms with few members present and no news coverage.
4. Congress must improve its handling of the news media.
Until television cameras are permitted to cover floor debates, Congress will remain a second-rate story on the nation's prime news delivery system.
The keys are O'Neill and Byrd. Both are afraid to let the cameras in - the new Speaker more than the new Senate leader, though both are on record as favoring television coverage.
The old saw among anti-TV legislators is that the cameras will be focussed on an empty chamber, or the sleeping senator or the one picking his nose or making an obscene gesture. A second argument against permitting live coverage is that floor debate is dull.
I work part-time for television and believe neither situation is true. The best thing on television news is confrontation. That is exactly what the House and Senate floor offer each day - not hours of it but centainly the 45 seconds to one minute that represents the meat of nightly news stories presented on TV.
Those stories would be better for television than te repititious coverage of Presidents getting on or off planes, sitting with visiting dignitaries or shaking hands with tourists.
Television news stories using 30-second excerpts from floor debates would also make more legislators household words.
Since journalists often have a difficult time deciding what is important, Congress - like the executive branch - could effectively take over that job through spokespersons. One could be established for the House, another for the Senate and given authority to speak at least for the leadership.
5. Congressional investigations must be revised and revamped.
The power of Congress to investigate is enormous, but its rational use is limited.
Congress can demand information from the executive branch and legally subpoena individuals and material from both inside and outside government. An investigation can start on the slimmest of legal rationales - oversight of some existing statute or the intent to draw up a new one.
Few congressional inquiries are clearly focused or directed at do-able tasks that Congress should be concerned about. Their aim should be finding out facts to shape a government program or, where laws are inadequate, to draft new legislation.The Teamsters Union investigations in the 1950's exposed union corruption. As a result, Congress passed the Landrum-Griffin Act which established new controls and reporting requirements on labor and management.
Perhaps the worst example of congressional inquiry run amuck is the present House investigation into the Kennedy and King assassinations. Pushed by publicity and pressure from a narrow but vocal constituency, what amounts to a multi-million-dollar criminal investigation is going to be conducted in the name of the House.
Furthermore, oversight should be the most widely used congressional investigation, but it is not.
Carter's pet subject, government reorganization, provides a perfect takeoff point for congressional inquiry. An agency should not be changed or wiped out without some detailed facts as to what it and other branches of the executive are doing.
House or Senate investigators are in a better position to gather such information than are Carter transition types. Even after Carter takes office, experienced congressional aides, whose own jobs would not be affected by the findings, probably would be more objective in developing facts surrounding executive department overlap.
One reform Congress should make is to maintain a small pool of trained investigators who could temporarily be attached to oversight committee staffs when criminal activities are uncovered. The average congressional committee staffer is ill-equipped for serious criminal investigations, and thus those undertaken frequently fall short of their mark.
The Senate's permanent investigations subcommittee has that expertise now - but it is used these days at the whim of its chairman.
6. Congress must go on an ethical binge.
The need is simple. Steps must be taken to require from Congress the same standards of behavior that the legislators regularly demand from officials of the executive branch. Open Records.
START WITH financial disclosure. Congress should require publicly available summaries of holdings and outside sources of personal income from each member.
As a second step, it should raise members' salaries to $60,000, high enough to cut out altogether the need fo them to maintain earned outside income.
The federal conflict of interest law should be expanded to reach former members of Congress. They and former staff aids should be barred from lobbying old colleagues for two years on any matter. They also should be prohibited from dealing with executive branch officials under the same rules governing all other ex-federal officials.
The Freedom of Information Act passed by Congress should be changed to apply to Congress and its committees. It does not now. This would open up internal records for travel, purchases, employment and salary that today are obtainable only in edited form.
Some members maintain office accounts which take private donations and use them to pay for political expenses in years when the member is not up for reelection. These accounts cover gifts to constituents, contributions to charities, flowers to sick friends, polls, mailings and newsletters.
Since some congressional allowances already provide for some of these - such as newsletters - critics of the office accounts want them eliminated. For some new members, however, these activities, and thus the funds, are a political necessity. The simply answer is to make the funds publicly reportable - which they are not now.
Finally, the Ethics Committees of both houses operate under special rules that permit them more secrecy than any other committee. The Senate committee, for example, does not have to seek additional funds through a resolution when it undertakes an investigation.The House committee can bar any member from attending its closed mettings.
Just the opposite is necessary to establish public confidence and to encourage the membership to proper behavior.
Ethics committee sessions should be publicly announced. Every investigation should be concluded with a public hearing laying out the facts. The preliminary inquiry could be private so as to sort out rumor from fact.
The standards of congressional ethics should be made so clear that today's gray areas will no longer exist.
7. The laws Congress passes must apply to Congress as well.
As previously noted, executive department conflict laws and the Freedom of Information Act were both drafted so as not to apply to Congress, its members and staff. That must be changed if the public is to have faith in its laws and lawnkers.
Other measures, such as the fair employment act, should also be enforceable on Capitol Hill.
When tax measures are approved, care should be taken that provisions applying to members of Congress - such as their recently approved $3,000 office deduction - do not give them an unfair advantage over other Americans.
8. Congress should take its hearings outside Washington and legislators themselves should travel more.
Committee hearings, particularly oversight inquiries, should be held around the country more often, in the areas most affected by the matters under study. They should not be - as they often now are - a form of election campaigning which limits them to sessions in the home district of a committee or subcommittee chairperson. Seeking Out the People
GETTING OUT of Washington will also bring Congress as an institution to the people. Travel would also expose legislators from one part of the country to conditions elsewhere.
Foreign travel for legislators is important. Because of past abuses, it needs tighter regulation. The simplest way to make sure that each overseas trip is necessary is to take its costs out of the approved budget of the committee involved. Today, payment for foreign trips comes from an unlimited State Department fund - a situation that permits a committee chairperson to approve almost any member's request for a junket since it does not hurt the plans of any other member.
Reports for domestic and foreign trips - including the purpose of the trip and expenditures of government funds - should be publicly filed immediately after the trip is concluded. And each trip should be publicly authorized by a committee or subcommittee vote.
This is a starter's list of the action necessary to reshape Congress. Most likely Congress will choose different steps.
In the end, however, the legislators will have to act in some manner that regains public attention and support. If Congress fails to do that - and do it soon - the country will most surely get another imperial President. And next time, there may be no Frank Wills, guarding the Watergate basement, to set in motion the events that save us.