THE MEMBERS of a House Appropraiations subcommittee did something Wednesday that a lot of their colleagues have probably longed to do. Convening to work on the $73.7 billion Labor-Health, Education and Welfare spending bill, they found the Rayburn Office Building hall jammed with over 200 would-be watchers-reporters, administration officials, congressional staff and a long line of lobbyists-all vying for space in a room with several dozen seats. Did the subcommittee move to a larger room-or the Capital Centre? Did it try to squeeze everyboby in? Did it adopt a first-come, first-seated rule? No, no and no. It voted 8 to 4 to close the doors and keep every-one out.
Of course this blunt rejection of the hard-won rule of openness has made many people holler. On human and political grounds, however, one can sympathize-if just a little-with the lawmakers who recoiled from the throng. Ever since open doors became standard on Capitol Hill, members of Congress have been grumbling about the audiences that major working sesions attract. The overflow crowds and confusion are not the worst of it. What most annoys many legislators is the fact that so many of the spectators are not reporters, not average citizens generally interested in watching part of Congress work, but lobbyists, officials and staff who are all too eager to send last-second signals and take careful note of members' comments and votes on specific points.
For instance, the members of the Labor-HEW panel no doubt knew most of the people swarming in that hall. They knew what each wanted. They had heard the appeals-several times. They knew that most of the petittioners could not be satisfied in such a tight budget year. No wonder they wanted some peace and quiet while they worked. And no wonder they also went along with Chairman William Natcher's decision not to announce their conclusions until the full Appropriations panel meets on June 4.
If you can't stand the heat, get out of the sunshine. It's an understandable reaction, but an overreaction just the same. Closing a meeting on nonsecret subjects does not turn off public curiosity; it simply forces people to rely on rumors and partial, third-hand accounts of what went on. Trying to embargo the results only generates more misinformation and frenzied lobbying-as well as suspicions that certain forces may have had special influence behind the scenes. Especially when so many popular, worthwhile programs are being squeezed, lawmakers burdened with those decisions should have an acute interest in getting out full, accurate information about what they propose and why. The best way to do that is to open the doors and let in asmany observers as the room will reasonably hold.