BY THE TIME CONGRESS leaves town on Saturday, the House will have set two dubious records. One will be for Most Roll Calls in a Year, the previous high (864 in 1976) was-exceeded last week. The House is also likely to outdo itself in Most Yeas and Nays Cast Without Any Clear Idea What the Veto Is About. It could hardly be otherwise when members have to vote in quick succession on at least six conference reports, three supposedly minor or noncontroversial bills and perhaps a half-dozen measures requiring fuller debate. That's today's agenda; tomorrow and Saturday could be worse.
Granted, some end-of-session turmoil is unavoidable. Big tax bills always come late. The energy package remains to be passed. House action is also needed to continue ACTION's programs and keep the Endangered Species Act alive.
Still, one may wonder why so much work remains at the end of the year. The answer is not that Congress has been loafing, or that various factions have held back some dubious bills - such as the proposed Department of Education - in hopes of sliding them through in the last-minute crush. Beyond all the maneuvering, what's noteworthy is that the House has been going at a frantic pace for months. Committees have kept churning out bills. Major measures have piled up on the calendar, with the leadership calling up one, then jumping to another, then going back to the first in mid-fight.
Meanwhile, over 400 bills - another record - have come up under "suspension of the rules." That streamlined procedure is supposedly for minor and noncontroversial matters, but many congressmen complain that they can't be sure what's going through when 15 or 20 bills rush by in one day.
How can the House break the general lawjam? The Democratic Study Group and others want to curb the number of roll calls. That could save some time. Rep. George E. Danielson (D-Cal.) has calculated that in the first half of this year, 517 roll calls ate up about a third of the House's time - and the outcome was overwhelmingly one-sided in 40 percent of those votes.
Still, some roll calls are useful. If members aren't made to think about a bill, even for a few seconds, they may not look at it at all - and Lord knows what might slip through then. And that points to the heart of the problem: The volume of business has gotten too great. Past Congresses have created too many programs and agencies for the current Congress to review or at least reauthorize. Moreover, the House's vaunted "democracy" - the devent of lively new members, the spreading-out of subcommittee power, the increases in junior members' staff - has generated a constant flood of new projects and proposals, each with energetic sponsors who can tell you in a trice why their measure is vital to the republic.
Streamlining procedures may only increase the glut. House members don't need more time to dream up and promote more projects. What they need is fewer subcommittees, less entrepreneurial staffs and, above all, more self-restraint. If they did fewer things, they just might do them better - or at least less frenetically.It's something to think about while waiting for the umpteenth roll call late tonight.