FOR THOSE who constantly complain about the deadlocks and bickering in Congress these days, I would suggest that perhaps the trouble is that Congress has really become too good for us.
No, not too good at enacting laws. Too good in other ways.
Consider the recent remarks of a House freshman who is himself not thrilled with the performance of his institution. The one aspect of the House that has surprised him most, he said, was the high quality of its members. "Overall, I would say of the 435 congressmen, 360 or so are probably superb people -- very, very impressive."
For the first time, he added, he understood the seeming paradox that the American public hates its Congress but loves its congressmen -- its an accurate reflection of reality. The whole is less than the sum of the parts.
The opposite corollary, of course, is that the Congress of two and three decades ago was greater than the sum of its parts. Ask any seasoned observer of Capital Hill and he will agree that in the 1940s and 1950s, Congress had many more hacks and dimwits than it does today. But it managed to rise above these obstacles and achieve a quite respectable record.
The troubling conclusion is that we have overimproved our legislative system.
One offshoot of this is the increasingly familiar complaint from congressional leaders about the lack of "followership." "In the old days," one vetean legislator remarks, "we had plenty of 'cannon fodder' around -- guys who did very little substantively but could always be counted on to back the leaders."
In such a setting, and reinforced by a strong committee system and the informal norms of Congress, a handful of intelligent and creative committee chairmen and party leaders had a free rein to run the policy process. It is not surprising that we think of the 1950s, the time of party machine hacks, as also being the time of legislative giants -- the Bob Kerrs, Richard Russells, Clarence Cannons and Carl Vinsons. Of course, many chairman did not act, or use their power to block ideas. But essentially the lack of overall quality enabled some individuals to excel and to keep the process moving.
Today, of course, few congressman sit back uncomplainingly, willing to let the leaders, the chairmen and the president make the policy decisions. The bright young legislators want to do that themselves.
Rep. Dave Stockman of Michigan may be the best example. When President Carter sent up his first standby gas rationing plan, Stockman, a second-term Republican, sent a point-by-point rebuttal to his House collegues. His case, rich with numbers that countered the administration's, swayed enough members to kill the plan while congressional leaders looked on helplessly.
Such junior House Democrats as Leon Panetta of California, Bill Brodhead of Michigan and Tim Wirth of Colorado offered equally persuasive facts and arguments to help kill the Carter real wage insurance proposal in the Budget Committee earlier this year. Similarly, in the budget battle that occupied the House for weeks last spring, legislators like Dave Obey (D-Wis.), Marjorie Holt (R-Md.), and Elizabeth Holtzman (D-N.Y.) offered their own economic analyses, often drawing on complex computer simulations of the economy and often contradicting both Carter and Budget committee chairman Robert Giaimo (D-Conn.).
As one administration lobbyist puts it, "We can't offer an assumption or a number without having someone shove it down our throats!"
The old system, of course, had its own serious flaws, which ultimately led to major reforms -- all of which, individually, made sense. The trouble is that, overall, we seem to have changed things too much for the better.
It is not easy to figure out what to do about this. Nobody wants to lobotomize our lawmakers or return to a system of political machines and isolated, autocratic chairmen. We certainly should not trade the new, bright Dave Obeys and Dave Stockmans for the old dull mediocrities of the past. The problem probably can only be solved by time, by the emergence of leadership in both the Congress and the White House that can match and outdo the bright members of Congress, both politically and intellectually.