NOW THAT the 102nd Congress has convened, one of the many questions it faces is whether it will be as beset by a spirit of fraternal me-tooism as was the last Congress. As a result of that spirit, the 101st Congress was awash in cosponsored legislation of dubious merit, achieved at suspicious cost.
Walter Fauntroy, who left office this month in favor of the District's new congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, was one of Capitol Hill's champion cosponsors. In the last Congress, the nonvoting delegate added his name to 1,125 bills and resolutions introduced by others. That's 15 percent of all legislation in the House. He set a modern record in the process -- but then lost the cosponsorship crown to another Democrat, Chicago's Rep. Cardiss Collins, who cosponsored 1,143 measures.
Congress couldn't always meet a budget deadline, but representatives were cosponsoring at a record clip. Only a handful, mostly committee chairmen or leadership members, cosponsored fewer than 100 measures.
Overall, 28 representatives had more than 700 cosponsorships. Between 1973 and 1983, only two members did so. Not in at least 16 years, and probably since the founding of the Republic, have so many cosponsored so much, and to so little effect.
Yet there are far fewer bills to cosponsor. The 93rd Congress of 1973-74 generated 21,000 House bills and resolutions; the 101st, about 7,600. Scores were procedural resolutions with no cosponsors. The sharp decline is due largely to a rules change in the late '70s. Hill veterans say the work is less grand, too. Small wonder. There's no money to spend.
"The legislation is a lot different," said Bud Myers, administrative assistant to Collins. "Ten or 15 years ago, major pieces of legislation were being passed." Now, he said, "it's almost micromanaging what's on the books."
Macro-sponsors tend to be liberal activists, such as Chester Atkins (D-Mass.), 896 in the last Congress, or former representative Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.), personal best of 630. But middle-of-the-road members, such as Frank Horton (D-N.Y.) with 880, and even some conservatives, like Robert Dornan (R-Calif.) with 752 in the 100th Congress, are eager joiners.
Cosponsorships served a special need for Fauntroy, who couldn't vote on the House floor. "Accommodating" is the word to describe Fauntroy's policy, said his administrative assistant, Harley Daniels. "Not having a vote, it's all we could do to help people out." What are members flocking to cosponsor? Commemorative days, special coins, noncontroversial proposals that won't cost. Without much to spend on special interests, Congress has been eager to honor them on the cheap. Of the 650 public laws signed by President Bush since he took office, almost one third would have us commemorate something.
"On these mom, flag and apple pie things, you have lobby groups coming around and saying, "Would you please cosponsor this?' " says John Doherty, press secretary to Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-Calif.). "It's amazing how many people say yes if you ask."
Fauntroy, in addition to his human-rights causes, signed onto legislation to mint coins for the 50th anniversary of the United Services Organization, charter an American Education Hall of Fame, put the late Rep. Claude Pepper's picture on a postage stamp, dub the monarch butterfly the National Insect and make square dancing the 1990 National Folk Dance of the United States. These measures had, respectively, 229, 41, 306, 24 and 70 cosponsors.
The cost of House members' relentless collegiality is barely visible. The Joint Committee on Printing estimates that an average page of the Congressional Record costs $513. Lists of cosponsors can fill one or two pages per day. Cosponsors usually are recruited by "Dear Colleague" letters, the Capitol Hill equivalent of junk mail. How much staff time is consumed writing, reading and responding to Dear Colleagues? What does it cost to print the resolutions, hold hearings and vote?
No one knows. But after California Democrat Jim Bates got Patient Account Management Day (saying that members of the American Guild of Patient Account Management are "the financial backbone of the health care system") onto the books, an aide conceded that such work is "not exactly the most efficient use of taxpayers' money."
One House subcommittee screens proposals for commemorative days, weeks and months. It wants to consider only resolutions already supported by a majority of the House. The rule was intended to reduce the traffic flow, but instead may fuel the demand for cosponsors.
Does a member personally add his or her name to each bill? Collins reviews every recommendation, her aide said. Fauntroy did not. "No. Impossible," said Horblitt. "You can't do it that way. You have to know what your member's view is, and he has to trust you."
The process keeps the nation's official calendar full. Take October 1990, or, as our elected officials thought of it, Polish-American Heritage Month, Italian-American Heritage and Cultural Month, National Down's Syndrome Month, National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Country Music Month, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Ending Hunger Month, Crime Prevention Month, the second half of Community Center Month, the 10th month of the International Year of Bible Reading and the third-to-last month of the first year of the Decade of the Brain.
Nothing else was commemorated on Oct. 1 and 2; but the 3rd was National Teacher Appreciation Day, the 6th German-American Day. The second week was Mental Illness Awareness Week. Then came the overlapping American Textile Industry Bicentennial Week and National Radon Action Week, with time out for National Children's Day on the 14th, World Food Day on the 16th and National Drug-Free Schools and Communities Education and Awareness Day on the 17th. The 20th launched National Red Ribbon Week for a Drug-Free America, and the next day started National Humanities Week. The month drew to a close with Refugee Day on Oct. 30. These are just the ones that became law.
Timing can be symbolic. National Tap Dance Day, May 25, is the birthday of the late tapper Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.
But timing occasionally sends the wrong signal. November 1989 was National Alzheimers Month. President Bush didn't sign the resolution until December.
Peter Overby is a Washington writer.