IT NEVER fails. Just when they find a use for the wheel, the inventor is not around to explain it. So it goes on Capitol Hill where this year's reinvention of the wheel is something called "oversight."
The papers will be full of talk this year about the 96th Congress being the Oversight Congress. The sense of that term is that enough laws have been passed, enough Big Issues confronted and it is now time for a pause. They will go back and study what they have wrought.
The truth of the matter is that oversight is one of the lesser understood and least exercised functions of Congress. It is overseeing the functions of government and the actions of its officials. In a word, it is investigation. All congressional committees have an oversight role, but few take it seriously. It is messy, it takes time and concentration and, should one dare a cynical thought, it has little appeal to the young and chi-chi Boob-Tube Babies who incrasingly inhabit the House and Senate.
So whatever the meaning, oversight is "in" and now that Congress is about to rediscover this wheel, the past master of the art -- and be not mistaken, it is an art -- has gone home to retirement in Sacramento.
At noon on Jan. 3, for the first time since 1953, John E. Moss was no longer the representative from California's 3rd District. Too bad. For if this is in fact the Oversight Congress, as its leaders have proclaimed, Moss would have been in hog heaven had he stayed.
In many ways, at least in recent times, John Moss had to be considered the inventor of oversight. For two decades, his subcommittee investigations put a relentless light on almost every imaginable kind of federal and corporate misdeed. Moss flayed, groused, flayed, pestered and then flayed some more as he charged along on his legislative Rocinante. Imprint on Government
BUT WHY John Moss? Why this mild, not very colorful, onetime appliance dealer and real estate salesman from the Central Valley? The best answer seems to be that Moss somehow figured that a congressman was supposed to come here and take names and kick tail. So he did, to a fare-theewell.
By the time Moss left Washington he had achieved something that others can lay only spurious claim to: an imprint on the way life is lived in the United States, an imprint on the way government governs.
Almost single-handedly, over enormous resistance, Moss championed the Freedom of Information Act of 1966 that opened government files to the public. Subsequent amendments in 1975 refined the law further and opened the process even more. Most of his colleagues an admirers agree the FOLA was the brightest of the gems Moss left behind.
But laws broadening the scope of the Federal Trade Commission, tightening securities regulation, establishing automobile and tire-safety standards, providing product-warranty potection and setting up a Consumer Product Safety Commission are among the other major legacies. The list is more impressive because Moss never was chairman of a full committe, the usual power base of the super-doer.
The subcommittee level, to which he was limited by the seniority system, was where Moss as overseer compiled his lengthy record as the House's gadfly. His last assignment, as chairman of the Commerce Committee's subcommittee on oversight and investigations, gave him rein to look into almost anything that tweaked his pique.
In the 95the Congress, in 1977 and 1978, and inquiries and investigations rolled at floodtide: the world uranium cartel, FBI foreign security surveillance, Air Force contract shenanigans, accountants' practices, hospital care and unnecessary operations, natural gas shortages, drug costs, college athletics, HEW birth-control policy, pesticide regulation all came under the subcommittee's investigative eye.
The results then, as before 1975, when Moss directed oversight investigations by other Commerce subcommittees, often meant hearings that attracted the press and reports that made Moss a front-page neme all over the country. Assessing the Record
IN A WORL where ego-tripping is de rigeur , there's an almost sour grapes view among some of Moss' old House Democratic colleagues, conceding that he did some big things but that all in all he wasn't the most effective congressman a district might have. To be sure, Moss made enemies, not a few of them in the House, where he violated the old-boy codes by calling the drones by their real names. His detractors -- mostly Republicans and corporate captains -- liked to say he was arrogant and unfair, publicity-happy, a power-crazy left winger.
One day before he left for home, Moss looked back to ponder the record. The criticism, if anything, mostly amused him. He treated it the same way he treated critical reactions to his votes: "Too many people want to be popular around here. I don't really give a damn. If it's the right vote, it will become popular."
The notion that he was antibusiness or a shill for the lefties amused him equally. "Actually" he said, "I am very conservative. People who want to dismantle the regulatory machinery of government are not conservatives, as many of them claim. They are very radical. That machinery is there because abuses occurred: the FTC, the Federal Reserve, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Interstate Commerce Commission. These things, you just don't tear down and destroy. Those cries come from people who claim regulation is onerous."
Typical of his don't-give-a-damm attitude was what Moss did in early 1973, when those early rockets from Nixon's Watergate started bursting. Moss called on the House to get the machinery ready to deal with a presidential impeachment. The House, typically, decided to wait a while after less blunt but more timorous souls prevailed.
"The leadership told me I was premature," Moss recalled, "but the thing of concern to me was that the House do its job... The pardon of Nixon [by Gerald Ford] interfered with the role of the House. The House should have completed its impeachment action. We were less than we should have been on that occasion. I don't think the country would have been hurt by an impeachment. I like nice clean pages of history." Praise From Nader
RALPH NADER, who is not given to soaring praise of your public servant, thinks the clean pages of history will show Moss to be "one of the greatest members of Congress of this century." Before Nader was inspiring legions of young idealists into their own oversight of corporate and govermental waywardness, Moss had been there already. "Nobody perfected oversight as John Moss did," Nader said.
The curious thing is that Moss came to Congress in 1953 with none of the polished tools one might expect a bulldong investigaro to have. He did have, however, a high indignation level, a basic sense of right and wrong and a belief that Congress was intended to be something more than a rubber stamp for vested interests.
He was born in Utah, the son of a coal miner, but moved to California with family as a boy. He attended a Sacramento college for two years, then went into business and Democratic politics. He was a state assemblyman for two years before his election to Congress in 1952.
His victory that year was by fourtenths of one percentage point and, as Moss remembered it, "By all that was holy, I was surely destined to be a onetermer." He seemed to seal his fate when he voted against California's interests, citing constitutional grounds, on the controversial Tidelands oil legislation. "With that, the opposition savored victory. But, in 1954, I got 62 percent of the vote. Poeple said they admired my courage and that became a rule with me -- to vote the way I think I should vote."
So with relative electoral security at home and armed with his idea that he was a part of the most representative segment of the federal government, Moss was a natural for the investigative work his subcommittees did. Before there was such a thing as "consumerism," Moss was practicing it on Capitol Hill. "I just have a strong feeling that when I buy something I am committing my dollars and my confidence to a product and I have a right to get a commitment of quality. It is wrong to sell people things that are dangerous to them in normal use."
The trouble with Congress, he continued, is that nor enough of its members are looking much beyond the next election -- they're too busy with their political careers to let sensitive and potentially damagin issues get in the way.
"Congress is not doing the kind of work that ought to be done.We ought to be monitoring the executive branch much more closely here. Take the General Services Administration. That is an incredible stiuation. What were the committees with the proper jurisdiction doing when these scandals were occurring? That is where the failure occurs." Belief in Congress
MICHAEL LEMOV, a Washington attorney who once was Moss chief counsel on consumer oversight, remembers him as "a brave man in a town of compromisers... While he was not a lawyer, he knew as much law as there was to be known about legislation. He also had a great belief in Congress as an institution. Whenever he took up the gavel, he felt he was representing an institution created by the Congress, and he was very strict and demanding in public as a chairman."
"In private," Lemov went on, "he was gentle an fair -- revered by his staff -- and he would never end a meeting until the other side had finished its presentation. Never blew his top, never raised his voice."
In public, with the gavel in hand, though, Moss gave another impression. He could be downright nasty with witnesses who spouted mumbo jumbo. He was unforgiving of malefactors and curt with bureaucrats who didn't want to share information with Congress.
"You have to hold a tight rein on a hearing," was the way Moss explained that. "Maybe I was too tight... But I think if we are to preserve our system, we have to be certain that nothing shatters the integrity of this institution."
Moss had a simple formula for conducting his subcommittee inquiries. He hired the brightest investigators he could find and then let them go where the leads took them. He made up his mind that he would be prepared to take "all the heat your opponents can put on you."
"Every Congress needs an SOB who ignores courtesy and concention. Moss did it without compromise. It's pretty glib to call a man courageous, but he was. He was persona non grata to a lot of members of the House -- and that is what made him so essential around here," said one of his admirers.
Thomas Greene, a youn lawyer from Sacramento who was Moss' last general counsel, said the congressman's "secret," such as it was, was that "he always perceived himself as a man from Sacramento -- never a part of the Washington establishment, never got into the big power game. He never said he was a crusader. He would feel uncomfortable saying that. but he had a sense of where he was going. In that area of the country, you can't be too outrageous and continue to be elected."
John Moss did his thing and now he's gone, maybe to teach in California, maybe to go back into business, but, at 63, not regretting for a minute that he could walk away from Washington cold turkey.
"You actually do represent the people when you come here. You are selected to speak for them and it is a great opportunity. But Congress should not be a career, and staying here should not be more important than the quality of your work."