The Senate is often referred to as the world's greatest deliberative body. That is an assertion that is best not put to a vote. Over the past decade the Senate has evolved into an accounting and bookkeeping institution where a premium is placed on technical and procedural deliberations.
Floor debate has deteriorated into a never-ending series of points of order, procedural motions, appeals and waiver votes, punctuated by endless hours of time-killing quorum calls. Serious policy deliberations are a rarity. "Great debate" is only a memory, replaced by a preoccupation with procedure that makes it exceedingly difficult to transact even routine business. Under present circumstances, it should be no surprise that respected members of the Senate are leaving to seek more productive endeavors.
Of course, these problems are not new. Sen. Estes Kefauver made a concerted effort to reform Senate rules in the '50s, and other hardy souls have followed his example into oblivion. But the problems clearly are getting worse, in part because of the few reforms that the Senate has adopted over the past 20 years.
During the early '70s, "Government in the Sunshine" became the watchword of a nation recovering from Watergate. For Congress, "sunshine" included opening all committee deliberations to the public, a general easing of strict rules of seniority and an attempt to diffuse the power of committee chairmen among the membership at large. Power sharing has been accomplished mainly through a proliferation of subcommittees. The result, suffice it to say, has not been totally beneficial.
Today, effective action by Congress requires a level of consensus that is painfully difficult to achieve. Before we can appropriate a single dollar, be it for a B-1 bomber or a sewage treatment plant, the matter frequently must be debated three times on the Senate floor alone. We debate programmatic funding levels in annual budget resolutions. We then debate the same issues all over again in authorization bills. Then we refight the same battles in annual appropriations bills.
The Congressional Budget Act has proven particularly problematic. Since the budget act was passed, the amount of time the Senate has devoted to budget deliberations has skyrocketed. Sen. David Pryor recently cited some rather alarming statistics on this trend. In 1975, the Senate cast 246 budget-related votes. During 1981, that number increased to 344. By 1985, 67 percent of all roll call votes in the Senate were on budget-related matters.
The enactment of Gramm-Rudman-Hollings added greatly to institutional problems. In the quest for a balanced-budget panacea, we added radical new procedural controls on legislative deliberations. In the case of Gramm-Rudman, procedural controls are not unlike price controls. Neither addresses underlying, fundamental problems, but both create distortions that lead to serious commodity shortages. The commodity in short supply as a result of Gramm-Rudman is regular annual appropriations bills.
In normal times, Congress appropriates funds for the operations of the government on an annual basis by sending the president 13 separate appropriations bills for his signature. Unfortunately, it is getting more and more difficult to remember the last time we had "normal times" in congressional appropriations. Over the past two sessions of Congress, we failed to enact a single regular annual appropriations bill.
Last year, in addition to the catch-all continuing resolution, the Senate passed two smaller continuing resolutions, two supplemental appropriations bills, four debt-limit extensions and one budget reconciliation bill. In the 99th Congress, we passed eight short-term continuing resolutions, five urgent supplementals -- including one to restore funding for programs we cut under the Gramm-Rudman sequester of 1986 -- and two general supplementals.
This haphazard approach to fiscal policy has been a legislative nightmare. Quite frankly, it hasn't done much for the economic health of the country either. In the belief that "there must be a better way," Sen. Daniel Inouye and I introduced legislation last June to revise Senate procedures.
That measure, S. R. 260, would significantly modify the way the Senate conducts legislative business. It would consolidate and clarify the responsibilities of standing committees and give new powers to the Senate leadership, including committee chairmen and ranking minority members. Among its key provisions are:
A new committee, made up of Democratic and Republican leaders, would assume all budget act responsibilities and powers. This would put the Senate leadership directly in charge of making broad policy decisions and setting spending priorities.
Legislative committees would be given the power both to authorize and to appropriate funds for programs under their jurisdiction, within the spending guidelines established by the leadership.
A two-year budget cycle would be adopted so that, at least in theory, the Senate could spend more time on oversight of existing programs.
In combination, these changes could greatly improve the legislative efficiency of the Senate. Our recent preoccupation with power sharing and procedural answers to tough national problems has not worked. We have to acknowledge that fact and begin the task of bringing some order to the Senate. While neither Sen. Inouye nor I believe this proposal is perfect, we think it is a serious starting point for considering long-overdue and much-needed institutional change.
The writer is a Republican senator from Kansas.