House members who four years ago staged a minicoup that put a crimp in the seniority system and significantly decreased the power of committee chairmen are unhappy with the results.
"I've voted for every reform - to open up committee meetings, to reduce the power of seniority, to do a number of things which reduce the power of a few in Congress - and somehow the end product is worse than it used to be." Rep. Charles Whalen (R-Ohio) told a colleague recently.
Most members are happy that power once boarded by committee chairmen is now spread around. Key subcommittee chairmen are as important as many full committee chairmen, and junior members can play as large a role in legislation as senior members.
But members aren't happy over the way these more powerful subcommittees have clogged the legislative machinery with controversial bills that ments and in turn more roll-call votes.
Republicans trying to stem the tide, used delaying tactics that produced even more roll-call votes, often on meaningless procedural matters like approving the day's journal. The result was 834 time-consuming roll-call votes in 1978, compared with 329 in 1972.
A more long-range proposal is to create another committee on committees. Its purpose would be to reorganize the whole committee structure, eliminate overlapping jurisdictions and, probably, some committees. A similar committee, headed by Rep. Richard Balling (D-Mo.), whose proposals were defeated in 1974, had suggsted that members be limited to serving on two committees.
In any case, in solving one problem - autocratic committee chairmen - another has been created.
As Cancus Chairmen Tom Foley (D-Wash.) said, "The reforms removed the restraints on the legistative process. Under the ancien regime, the chairmen autocratically perhaps, but nonetheless effectively, blocked a lot of legislation."
Foley noted that chairmen could simply refuse to take up bills they weren't interested in or didn't like. New rules require them to take up subcommittee bills, and the necessity of standing for reelection adds to the pressure in the full committee chairmen to consider the subcommittees' work.
The Rules Committee was once also another roadblock, but now it's under the leadership's thumb, and rarely blocks a bill.
"The abuses of the autocratic chairmen led to reform. Now Congress finds itself stripped of the ability to restrain subcommittees. Many members feel . . . we are overtaxing and overburdening the legislative process." Foley said.
The leadership was also in a bind over how to schedule all the legislation for floor action and turned often to the suspension calendar, a device intended to speed up consideration of non-controverisal measures, but which allows no floor amendments and requires a two-thirds vote for passage. Last year 400 bills ended up on the suspension calendar, compared with 145 in 1972, and some of them were both controversial and expensive.
Finally, as one Democrat put it, there was the ultimate question. Why, in an era of antispending and antiregulation, are we churning out bills that increase spending and adds the number of regulations?
Two newer Democrats, Reps. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) and John LaFake (D-N.Y.) recently sent a letter to other House members that said, "We believe that the time has come for the House to assess the kind of balance we have achieved between efficiency and the desire to permit all sides to have their causes heard and decided."
They praised the changes that opened up the system but added. "We have to wonder, has the pendulum swung too far? We believe it has."
On Dec. 4, House members will return to organize for the next Congress and will begin to discuss the first tentative steps to deal with curtailing the subcommittees.
Unlike the 1974 caucus, the results won't appear earthshaking or even very conclusive.
While a consensus exists about the problems, no clear consensus exists about what to do about them.
As a transition causus, the proposals will seem to be going in several directions.
Some younger members want to press the "democratization" - the spreading around of power - still further. So a number of proposals will deal with limiting the options of senior members for choice subcommittees and subcommittee chairmanships to give new members a better pick and even more voice in the process.
Other members want to deal with the problems only as they affect voting on the House floor. They want to make it more difficult to get a roll-call vote, eliminate such procedural votes as approving the journal, eliminate debate time on open rules and authorize the speaker to cluster votes.
Some members also want to eliminate what they consider the abuse of the suspension calender, either by cutting down on the number of days that suspensions can be brought to the floor or by putting a limit on the amount of money that can be in a bill placed on the suspension calendar.
But the sleeper among the proposals will be ones that would limit the number of subcommittees on which a member could serve. The Democratic Study Group proposes a limit of four. A task force of sophomore members wants to limit the number of five.
Currently, 120 members serve on more than five subcommittees, and a limit of four would reduce subcommittee assignments by 215, or 13 percent of the total. The hope is that some subcommittees would also be eliminated this way.
If this seems a back-door way to come at the problem, it's because it is. Democrats are treating the problem gingerly because they have created something of a Frankenstein monster in the subcommittee chairman.