AMID THE BLIZZARD of words since the election -- eulogies for the liberals, nonsense about "a sharp swing to the Right," bold talk about the executive bureaucracy, tiresome gossip about transition teams -- one small item stands out. The incoming Senate leadership has promised to reduce the size of committee staffs by 10 percent.
The quavering pledge is not earthshaking, but to people who watch and care about Congress, it is a harbinger of light. It is further encouraging that the Republicans' trial balloon has floated a few blocks south and landed on the steps of the House, where the Democratic leadership allows it might go the GOP one better by reducing staff 15 percent.
Though the proposed reductions are minimal, they border on the revolutionary: perhaps only a small step for the Republicans and Democrats, but a giant step for Congress. Given a strong stimulus, Congress might even reverse the expansion trend and rededicate itself to; what it can do best: debating and shaping national policy.
Everyone who has been around the Capitol for some years has several stories illustrating the decline of the institution. One of my favorites concerns a lawyer friend, Bill, who had been trained by Sam Ervin, the North Carolina senator, that replica of the classic Roman lawgiver -- diligent,; learned, personally responsible. When Ervin retired, my friend went to work for a "modern" senator, a moneyed lawyer with a smooth media veneer. Bill's first assignment was to analyze for the new senator a proposed amendment to a civil rights bill. He prepared a brief, complete with pros and cons, backed with 20 pages of precedents and comments. The new senator weighed the material for a moment, then tossed it back to Bill and said, "You don't expect me to read all this! Just tell me how to vote."
That's the real transition on Capitol Hill. It began when members of Congress abdicated decision-making to their growing staffs. It did not happen overnight, but evolved after World War II with the explosion of the federal government, and the natural desire by the legislative branch to keep up with the burgeoning executive branch, the expanding lobbies and the new technologies.
Look at the numbers. In 1891, there were 39 personnel in the Senate and none in the House. In 1947, the 435 representatives employed 1,440 people to run their offices and do the political chores; they now hire about 7,000. In 1947, each senator had about seven staff members, in contrast to 36 today. How did senators such as Norris, LaFollette, Wagner, Russell, Taft and Vandenberg ever get anything done? (Or, might we ask, cynically, would they have been able to accomplish anything if they had been overwhelmed by battalions of staffers, as are their modern-day peers?)
The post-war growth in committee staffs has more than kept pace. In 1947, the standing committees of the House employed 167 people; now they employe almost 2,000. Senate committees have grown fivefold -- from 232 staff members in 1947 to just over 1,000 today. By the way, these figures include neither the staffs of joint committees nor of the numerous caucuses (Textile Caucus, Suburban Caucus, Mushroom Caucus, etc.) that have sprouted on the Hill in the past decade -- in all, an additional few hundred staffers at a minimum.
Consider also the Capitol Police Force (1,167 strong, two of them for every member of Congress, larger than Luxembourg's army). Consider those who serve the leadership -- the parliamentarians, the sergeants-at-arms, the doorkeepers, the secretaries, clerks and postmasters (all 2,838 of them).
Then there are the support agencies -- Library of Congress, General Accounting Office, Congressional Budget Office and Office of Technology Assessment (add on additional 11,045 to the payroll of the Billion Dollar Congress).
Don't forget the Government Printing Office, the 7,545 men and women who work around the clock to keep Congress knee-deep in paper. There are hairdressers, barbers, chefs, waiters, waitresses, electricians, cabinetmakers, janitors and elevator operators.
And finally there is the Capitol architect, who has the thankless task of finding space (and parking!) for the 30,000 people who today call Congress their home away from home. He employs more than 2,000 people -- some of them harmless landscapers and gardners, but others who draw up mischievous plans to convert Capitol Hill into a sterile mausoleum, dominated by asphalt and marble (that, however, is another story).
Certainly one cannot attribute the poor record of the Imperial Congress exclusively to "stafflation." But there is a definite relationship between the member's neglect of his prime legislative task and his growing involvement in activities that echaust his time and energy.
How can a member of Congress possibly have time to study problems and think through solutions when, from the moment he arrives in his office until he turns out the light at night, he is pushed and tugged by aggressive and competent aides, all with "top priority" projects, well-documented position papers and memos, well-drafted bills and amendments, and neatly composed letters to constituents? These operations generate activity but not accomplishment.
The amount of time that a member of congress has to deal with real people, to talk, write and think for himself, has been reduced. He has surrounded himself with battalions of intermediaries and a thicket of "labor-saving" devices (electric typewriters, computerized letters, WATS lines and photocopiers) that have not saved labor, but simply made paper and more work.
The political leader has been transformed into a manger of a bureaucracy, offering endless constituent services. The largest growth in personal staff in the past decade has come in members' district offices, where employes spend their days "cutting red tape" and providing other ombudsman-type services. Similarly, four out of five staff members in Washington offices keep their bosses furiously busy on such risk-free activity, which provides a safe route to reelection, but is irrelevant to political leadership or decision-making.
Is it any surprise that the largest and fastest-growing committee in Congress (House Administration) deals almost exclusively with internal housekeeping -- operating the computer center, overseeing the computer center, overseeing the support agencies and the Smithsonian, printing the Congressional Record, commissioning monuments and the like? The House Administration Committee had seven staff members in 1947; it now employes well over 200. In comparison, the House Appropriations Committee (which controls the country's pursestrings), manages with half that staff, the Ways and Means Committee with fewer than 100 employes.
The Senate Government Affairs Committee, which handles many of the same administration tasks as House Administration, has 162 staff members Only Judiciary hires more (172), and it has not enacted a major piece of legislation in years. How is it that Russell Long's Finance Committee -- which passes reams of vital tax legislation annually -- manages with only 41 staff members? Even that is six times more than Finance Chairman Walter George employed in 1947!
The problem is that legislators are legislating less and managing more. Given that it is always easier to gain weight than to lose it, how can Congress reverse its tendency to obesity?
A recent conversation I had might provide a clue. A five-term representative, discussing his boyhood visits to his congressman in the 1930s, said: "He stayed here for as long as he wanted. His life expectancy ws just as good as ours, but without all the paraphernalia. I'm ready to go back to two rooms, one aide and a secretary. With no district office either," he emphasized. "And provided all members operate on the same basis. It's not nostalgia, but frustration. I want to be a legislator."
Then he added, "Please don't use my name."
Perhaps it is only when the legislators allow their names to be used that will we know that the revolution is upon us.