HAVING SPENT several years picking apart the old structures of power in the House, congressional Democrats are now trying to put some of it back together again. "Consolidation" and "restraint" are going to be prominent themes when the House Democratic caucus gathers today to start organizing for the 96th Congress, which starts next month. What makes this effort doubly interesting is that it reflects a lot of second thoughts by the very same forces -- notably the Democratic Study Group and the agressive, reform-minded "class of 1974" -- that led the earlier charges to modify the seniority system, make chairmen more accountable, and give junior members more authority, staff and running room.
These are, in other words, the same people who brought you the 95th Congress with its heaps of legislation, its procedural snarls, its headstrong subcommittees and that incredible jam-up at the end. (Of course, the Senate played its part in some of this, but that's another story.) The 96th is not likely to be quite as chaotic in any case because the president's legislative agenda and the backlog of pet congressional bills are bound to be less immense. Still, the 96th is going to have vital and equally controversial work to do, especially in the lines of budget-cutting and oversight. So if those independent, democratic Democrats want to try to pull together, we'll be glad to hold their coats and urge them on.
Some things on the caucus agenda may not help much. Committee reorganization, for instance, is a perennial dream that always turns into a brawl. The Democrats seem to be well-launched toward a three-cornered joust among Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill (D-Mass.), Rules Committee chairman Richard Bolling (D-Mo.) and Rep. Phillip Burton (D-Cal.). This sounds all too much like a replay of the monumentally nasty snarl that the last reorganization drive produced in 1974.
There is more promise in the flock of proposals under the general category of making it harder to get legislation to the House floor. A prime target, justifiably, is the suspension-of-the-rules approach that was routinely abused in the last Congress to the point that 20 or 30 bills would be rammed through in an afternoon, with few members having any idea what they were voting on. That procedure should be restored to its original purpose: expediting passage of a few minor, non-controversial bills. Proposed restraints include limiting the number or cost of bills handled this way, requiring more notice and demanding special clearances by committees. Any or all of these steps would be useful.
The most significant change of all would be somehow to curb the tendency of members to advance so many bills and projects in the first place. The shifts in the political climate may produce more self-restraint. Rules changes will have only a small effect, but there are some curbs on members' resources that could help. Restricting each lawmaker's subcommittee assignments -- to four or even three -- could encourage them to concentrate their time and press releases a bit more. And there's another ceiling that would be even more useful, if it ever came to pass: a freeze on staff slots and salaries, or perhaps even a cut.