ONE OF THE ENDURING WONDERS of representative democracy is the organic reflex system of the Congress, which often is driven by the brute rules of nature -- hunger and fear and self-preservation -- much more than the collective free will of 535 reasonably intelligent men and women. m
Ever thus, probably ever shall be. In other moments, I have compared the Congress to a herd of pokey hogs, who are best driven by a smack on the rump. Occasionally, the M.C.'s act like lemmings. Confronted with a howling mob, they will run blindly before it, enacting whatever silly and unconstitutional law seems to soothe the savage voter. Or, sometimes, I think of Congress as a field of flowers, bending inexorably toward the sunlight of a hot new idea that promises to make all pain and complications go away.
All this is true and remarkably enduring. The collective reflexes of scared and inattentive politicians often overwhelm the rational ideal, the assembly of contending reason that was supposed to divine the public will and enforce it.
And yet. And yet. My small-d democratic soul leapt up with hope this season. I discerned something changing about the Congress -- or thought I did -- an evolution too subtle for front-page headlines, too tentative and fragile for major celebration. With a huge leap of premature faith, I will celebrate anyway.
Let's hear it for the House of Representatives, our much-battered forge of democracy. In a moment of stunning maturity this summer, the House decided, for all the right reasons, that it would not buy this season's hot new idea, the Energy Mobilization Board. In parliamentary terms, the House merely recommitted the legislation for further reworking, but I hope and trust the lopsided roll call, 232-to-131, was enough to finish it. What happened, crudely speaking, is the M.C.s realized at the 11th hour that it is better to smother this baby in the crib before it grows up to become another monster.
I celebrate because this idea -- the so called "fast track" for important energy projects -- originated in the crass tradition of congressional irresponsibility. I assumed, therefore, that Congress would spring for it without hesitation. The EMB is a classic made-in-Washington solution, promising Congress a quick fix, no pain, to horribly complicated problems which Congress itself created. When Congress does not bend toward the sunlight of a phony panacea, maybe we are seeing the beginnings of legislative responsibility. As I said, it takes a leap of faith.
The so-called "fast track" legislation was aimed at the landmark environmental protection laws enacted in the Seventies, but the outlines of congressional irresponsibility are embedded in nearly all the modern legislation. The laws were not laws, in the classical meaning. They did not compel certain behavior or prohibit. They expressed generalized desires.
The legislative wish lists of public desires and good intentions are then turned over to a federal agency, often a new one created for that purpose, where civil servants are required to do the hard, bloody job of defining exactly what Congress wanted. This is politically desirable for the M.C.s because it shifts the burden of compelling citizen behavior away from themselves and toward those much-dreaded creatures, the bureaucrats. Ultimately, many of the issues are decided, not by the bureaucrats, but by those other unelected officials, federal judges. When things go wrong, Congress likes to beat on both.
In the context of this history of legislative evasion, the idea of an Energy Mobilization Board seemed especially alluring. We all know the problem and the arguments. America needs to develop its own energy resources but, it is said, we can't get the job done. Major projects -- the pipelines, refineries, experimental synthetic plants -- are supposedly hostage to the regulators and their damnably complicated rules about clean air and clean water and toxic wastes.
It takes too long. It costs too much. Let's sweep away those environmental rules and regulations and go after the oil and coal and so on. That, roughly speaking, has been the businessman's bleat for the last several years, led by the oil companies and, incidentally, echoed by conservatives like Ronald Reagan.
What to do? Well, Congress could roll over and repeal those troublesome environmental laws and let business have a free field again to do its thing. The trouble is, most citizens want clean air and clean water. They don't wish to be poisoned by industrial wastes. They expect the government to protect them from those dangers which, when you think about what government is supposed to be, does not seem an unreasonable expectation. The M.C.s know, well enough, that the Sierra Club has more votes than the Business Roundtable.
The solution seemed obvious -- have your cake and eat it too. Create a new agency, a three-member board which can play Wizard of Oz on all the hard cases, picking which projects must obey the law and which ones don't. Thus, the government can wink at Exxon and smile at the populace, simultaneously.
In an earlier time, when party discipline was stronger, when the rules of legislating were tighter and party chairmen were genuinely powerful, this bad idea would surely have been enacted, with a whoop of self-congratulations. This fall, the M.C.s would be back in their districts, bragging that their new "fast track" board has unleashed energy production and also promising that they had not done anything to weaken the enforcement of environmental laws.
Except this time, they said no. When the bill came back to the House from conference, the simple idea had evolved into another labyrinth of hearings and rehearings, appeals and exceptions and very troubling implications. The business interests which thought they were creating a new back door to influence government decisions lost enthusiasm when they saw that the "quick fix" was becoming another regulatory checkpoint they would have to pass.
Conservative Republicans appeared on the House floor with little red buttons in their lapels proclaiming their understanding of what EMB stood for: "Even More Bureaucracy." The hot new idea, they discovered, would pre-empt hundreds of laws -- state and federal and local -- and give extraordinary powers to this three-person board at the Department of Energy. Rep. Robert Bauman, the Maryland conservative, enjoyed the irony of marching arm-in-arm with liberal stalwarts like Rep. Morris Udall of Arizona, who leads the pro-environmentalists.
"I do not do so because I am an environmental kook," Bauman told his colleagues. "I do not think anyone would accuse me of that. I find myself in league today with some persons who claim to have a higher regard for the enviroment that I, and mine is quite high, but if the principle embodied in this conference report is applied to every national problem as it is being applied to energy, the Constitution of the United States is through. It is destroyed and the union of the states is destroyed with it."
Not to mention the fairness and effectiveness of the federal environmental laws. As Rep. Toby Moffett asserted, the EMB would become, in time, an executive branch "pork barrell" in which lurcrative favors could be awarded to private interests and particular localities while denied to others, depending on who pleased the Wizard of Oz. lThis is not government; this is the clientele politics which invites corruption.
In any case, when the House members spurned the seductive quick fix, they were fully aware that this negative vote didn't deal with the real problems. Those will be back before Congress again next year. The Clean Air Act, among other environmental laws, is up for renewal in 1981, which invites a fundamental debate -- and probably a nasty fight -- over precisely what America wants in environmental protection and, perhaps more important, how effectively the government enforces it.
My own uneducated impression is that the mechanics of enforcement are ripe for reform -- that time and money can be saved without retreating from the basic standards and goals of those important laws. I suspect, as well, that this is what the general public wants most of all -- effective government, not less protection.
In any case, if those political questions are fought out in Congress -- argued out by the elected representatives, instead of an executive wizard -- that is the way things were supposed to work.