I stopped by the Senate Caucus Room the other day to watch the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on SALT II and was struck by the 17 -- count 'em, 17 -- staff aides who lined the wall behind the six senators who were present.
Side by side they watched and listened to the questioning of retired Gen. Alexander Haig -- and did little else. There was almost no note-taking and little talk among them, or with the senators.
Sixteen years ago, while employed as a Foreign Relations Committee staffer, I worked the ornate Caucus room one day during hearings on the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty.
The committee, back in what now must be considered the "old days," had a rule that only three aides could attend such a glamorous session. The reason was that the staff had already prepared a broad range of questions for all the committee members, whether Republican or Democratic. The senators back then didn't want aides hanging over them or around them, treating one or another of them like a puppet.
Furthermore, the committee professional staff in 1963 was just a handful compared with the roughly 50 staffers who work for the committee or are specially employed by each member these days to handle foreign-policy matters.
In 1963, each staff member had specific regional responsibilities or -- as in my case -- a particular investigation underway. We couldn't afford to sit around and watch the show -- which is what the give-and-take of a good congressional hearing is all about.
The staff director at the time, Carl Marcy, enforced the three-staffer rule with the unanswerable response to a plea to sit in: "There'll be a transcript tomorrow and you'll only have to wait a few hours for it."
Having been a staffer, I think I know what's drawing those 17 to the bright lights of the SALT II sessions.
At best, the few who have prepared tough questions for one senator or another want to see how they play.
At worst, they want to show their importance, perhaps get on television or in a still picture that makes the newspapers and, at the least, be able to talk that night or later about "how it really was" when Henry Kissinger, Harold Brown or Haig appeared.
But more than just ego is involved. The "reform" of the congressional staffs the past 10 years has created a growing, exorbitantly paid Capitol Hill bureaucracy. It started out as an attempt to provide some equality for legislators in the battle with the Executive Branch for information. But it's gone far beyond that now.
To justify their $30,000 to $40,000 salaries, staffers now push their senators or congressmen into all sorts of new fields. Attempting to do more, Congress is doing less.
To satisfy the Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees' staffs, the administration has had to provide hundreds of briefings, special reports and letters. Perhaps it is my own myopia, but the only result I can see of the new Hill SALT II staffing is that phalanx of staffers sitting by at the Haig hearing.
If there is one place to start attacking the fat that now bulges over "big government" in Washington, I think it's the legion of high-paid congressional aides.