GERALD FORD had a point: Congress may be the most bureucratic branch of government, the one most swollen with staff and perquisites - and scandals - and the one least open to discipline. The President alluded to this in his State of the Union Message, noting that the congressional budget has "passed the billion mark." To many citizens, it adds up to self-indulgence by legislators interested chiefly in re-election, publicity and plums. For anyone holding that cynical view, it hardly matters how the Senate or House is organized. But if you believe, as we do, that members of Congress are there to serve the public interest, then it is worth heeding the scrap over committee reorganization rending the Senate now.
At the heart of the fuss is a plan, drawn by a panel led by Sen. Adlai Stevenson (D-III.), to consolidate the present 31 committees and 174 subcommittees into 15 committees and about 100 subcommittees, The purpose, in management terms, is to allocate work more sensibly, pin down responsibility, and enable the Senate to deal more coherently with large sprawling problems like energy, transportation and executive branch oversight. It takes no expertise to understand what's wrong when 33 subcommittees and 16 committees compete in the single area of energy research.
But good-government principles of not play a large rule in either the Senate's operations or the reorganization fight itself. What matters is power. It wasn't abstract logic, for instance, that kept the Stevenson panel from trying to reduce the Finance Committee's vast domains. The fierce quarrel over whether international banks should be handled on Banking or Foreign Relations has nothing to do with organizational neatness. No theory has led senators to shy away from a comprehensive environment committee. Instead, it's the fact that environmental protection has become a tough and politically unrewarding battle-ground.
Nonetheless, the reorganization plan has gotten as far as it has - and it has at least a chance of avoiding total dismemberment - because senators feel a growing pressure to legislate seriously and because they see the Senate's organizational slackness as a major barrier. Skeptics may feel that remodeling a structure cannot overcome the effects of endemically sloppy housekeeping and that what consolidation may be achieved will be undermined by the acquisitive instincts and lazy habits of the Senate's 100 individualistic members. New special committees will no doubt be created to replace some of those eliminated. New spheres of influence and new lines of collaboration with agencies and interest groups will be crafted.
Yet, the institution will have been shaken up some-what and forced to arrange itself in some better relationship to current - rather than past - politics, priorities and personalities. Moreover, just as reorganization may enable some senators to look better, it should also identify more clearly who should be held accountable for future failures. From the public's perspective, this is the most important benefits - just as, from the Senate's viewpoint, it is the largest risk.