CONGRESS IS CHOKING on its own staff, and it's about time for a Heimlich maneuver.

Consider the sad plight of Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.). The new chairman of the Senate Finance Committee would have liked nothing more than to enact a trade bill last year -- a feat which could have brought comparisons to the tax bill miracle of the preceding chairman, Bob Packwood (R-Ore.). Had it been left to members sitting alone in a room, Bentsen might have had it easy. Politicians tend to be pragmatists who look for compromise.

Instead, each of the 20 senators on the committee had staff representatives dedicated to advancing their interests. Tireless aides invented so many special interest provisions that administration officials had no choice but to fight the bill strenuously. Now the measure has been put on ice in a House-Senate conference, and both Bentsen and his Democratic party leaders have been embarrassed by their failure to take action against a trade crisis which they constantly decry.

The time has come to cut staff back substantially, and in the process restore Congress as a deliberative body rather than a staff-driven public relations machine. Admittedly, I make this courageous proposal only after leaving the Hill where I worked as a staffer over much of the last 13 years. (Until now I was too busy contributing to the fiasco to comment upon it.)

Congressional staffers are usually bright, energetic and eager to do good. But that's the problem. In their zeal to serve, they have complicated the workings of Congress to the point where the institution has become ineffectual. It is by now a familiar complaint that congressional discipline has dissolved as each member seeks to establish independent power, speaking directly to constituents and television cameras. What is not fully appreciated is how the growth of staff has facilitated this fragmentation.

Why should a congressman defer to more senior or specialized colleagues, to party leaders, to committee chairmen or to the executive branch? Now through the miracle of staff anyone can mount the national stage by means of press releases, endless bills and amendments, ghostwritten letters and threatening phone calls. At the State Department, one liberal congressman is known as the "mayor of the Philippines," so closely does he insist on monitoring developments there, in part through surrogates on his staff. And aides to a conservative member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are themselves privately referred to as "Senator" by executive branch officials stunned at the license with which they exercise their boss' prerogatives.

But staff does not stop at thwarting administrations. Inadvertently, as in the case of the trade bill, staff gridlock works against Congress itself.

The vast proliferation of staff that began in the 1970s had a noble intention -- countering the excesses of the Nixon presidency. But a good thing has been carried too far. The 535 elected representatives of Capitol Hill are now served by 20,000 personal, committee and general administrative staffers -- three times the level of 1970. (You could more than double the number if you count legislative agencies such as the Congressional Budget Office and General Accounting Office.)

Each congressman is now allowed to hire up to 22 staffers. Senators, depending on the population of their states, can have as many as 70 or 80. Committee and subcommmittee chairmen, of course, exercise control over many more -- something I learned on first joining a Hill staff in 1975. One day I needed to find Paul Kirk, now chairman of the Democratic National Committee, but then chief political lieutenant to Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). Naively I went looking in Kennedy's main Senate office. Kirk, it turned out, was not stationed there but at a desk in the offices of the Subcommittee on Refugees, which Kennedy chaired. Similarly when I worked as an aide to Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.) I was placed on the payroll of the Senate Budget Committee and later, as speechwriter to Rep. John Anderson (R.-Ill.), I occupied the position of minority staff director of the House Ad Hoc Committee on Energy. Heinz and Anderson were the most ethical of employers; they simply operated in an environment which encourages placing staff in every nook and cranny.

When space became unbearably crowded a few years ago -- and most Hill offices today are as jammed as newsrooms -- Congress didn't reduce staff, the obvious solution. Instead it allocated $150 million to erect the new Hart Senate Office Building. The size of office suites and staff retinues has become a matter of pride -- every member must have a panoply of personal assistants if only because everyone else has them too.

Intellectual arguments are indeed made for providing such abundant staff, but the evidence to support them is thin. Here's a sample of the surviving myths:

Staff is needed to deal with the complex issues before Congress. Much of that complexity is of the staff's own making. Who has time for real study or debate when staff activity generates constant committee meetings, non-stop votes and the need to manage a large office bureaucracy? Look for your congressman when an important issue arises, and you are less likely to find him on the floor debating it than in the House TV studio beaming a canned news feed about it to his district or in his office approving a staff-manufactured statement for insertion into the Congressional Record "as if read."

Staff is needed to serve constituents. Although voters hear more than ever from their representatives -- bombarded through staff efforts with newsletters, taped radio spots and computer-generated correspondence signed by mechanically operated "autograph pens" -- the communication is largely one-way. The first duty one learns on a staff is to answer letters quickly, ambiguously and in such a way that the Congressman to whom they are addressed never has to read them. Over the years I have greeted many a constituent who walked into the office of his representative, no doubt expecting to encounter him personally. But unless they were VIPs, part of a large group or sizable campaign contributors, I did my best to keep them at bay. Even I became so jaded that sometimes I sent a summer intern to perform the task and hid from the constituents myself.

Staff is needed to balance the executive branch. Staffers have gone to extremes. Now they "micromanage" the executive branch, intruding into minute details of daily governance for which they are ill-suited. I once made the mistake of calling Pentagon officials to urge selection of a local firm for a weapons contract; both my boss and the constituents were delighted with my initiative, but I got stuck transmitting many more such requests even when I sensed I had become a pest and the action was counterproductive. Beating up on the executive branch doesn't really make Congress more powerful; ultimately it just breeds fiercer resistance.

Staff is needed to enhance the influence of junior members. Again, staff has gone too far. As with the arms race, the staff race between junior and senior members has escalated tensions and made no one secure. Senior members remain powerful, and the result is continual conflict. Younger members have now created their own monster: I have heard some express fears of staff power and weariness of the bureaucratic quality of life that staff expansion has produced.

Staff is needed to fight special interests. In fact, staff spawns special interests. The presence of specialized aides on each representative's staff has multiplied contact points for peddlers of influence. The thousands of lobbyists in Washington, many former Hill staffers, would have little to do if they depended on personal audiences with congressmen. Instead, they help to fill La Colline, the Monocle and other Hill restaurants at noontime as legislative aides taking free meals from them listen respectfully to the arguments they make on behalf of their clients. Executive branch officials can't accept a cup of coffee from a business contact; congressional staff would be resentful if that was all they got.

What to do about all this? I would aim for roughly a 50 percent reduction in staff. This would still leave staffing levels higher than they were little more than a decade ago. Is it possible that Congress cannot be adequately served by a "core" staff of 10,000 -- an average of 20 staff members for each representative?

The idea of the 1970s that more staff was needed to revitalize Congress had the ring of logic, but realities today belie its promise. For all its resources, Congress can't pass appropriation bills in a normal and timely manner. Its answers to the trade and budget crises are belated, inadequate and sometimes counterproductive. The tradition of bipartisan foreign policy has been lost in petty squabbling. How could fewer staff do worse?

Much staff could be cut without affecting those functions which have been used to justify the expansion. Xerox machines, for example, could dispense the same information as computer-generated correspondence -- but spare constituents the illusion of personal attention and save Congress large numbers of staff. The Congressional Record might reprint only a faithful transcript of words uttered on the House or Senate floors -- eliminating not only the aides who run into the stenographer's office after a speech to do a wholesale rewrite of their boss' remarks, but also those who draft statements which are never even spoken, just handed in.

On the other hand, I wouldn't cut clerical assistants -- constituents ought to know that if they have a problem, someone will answer the phone and transmit a message. (Currently that message is likely to be channeled to a legislative assistant who will bury it.) And committee staffs are also essential in arranging hearings, posing and explaining policy choices, drafting the fine points of legislation and providing daily administrative services. But members ought to learn to rely more on committee specialists rather than demanding their own exclusively reserved legislative assistants who often perform duplicative functions.

My last boss, Sen. Bob Dole, (R-Kan.) was sometimes criticized for not "delegating" more authority to staff. It may be, as a result, that I was deprived of some fun in his office that I might have had in others. But now that I see it from an outsider's perspective, I say: "Bravo!" That's the way Congress should work -- and that may be the only way it ever will.

Mark Bisnow has worked for congressmen and senators of both political parties, most recently as consultant to the Senate Republican leader. He is now employed in the executive branch.