The recent revolt against increased committee staffing requests in the House of Representatives reflects not only the new budget-cutting mood of members but also a growing consensus that the institution itself is becoming unwiedly and unworkable.
The House reform revolution of the last decade has replaced the centralized committee system with a sprawling and decentralized subcommittee system that has dispersed powers so much that today the institution is nearly powerless. As House Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter Rodino recently observed, "If the trend is not reversed, the day is not far off when every majority members will head a subcommittee. Then we will have no leadership, and no 'followership.' Everybody will be a boss."
Over the last decade, committee staffs have ballooned from approximately 700 to 1,900, and the numbers of subcommittees has increased from 100 to 152. Yet, over the same period, the number of public bills enacted into law by each Congress has remained relatively stable, averaging around 600. By contrast, the average output of public laws over the previous decade was actually higher -- 739.
The reason for this relative stability in legislative output is not difficult to discern: the same number of House members are working in approximately the same number of House committees with the same number of hours in a day, days in a week, and weeks in a year. In short, while our legislative capacities are finite, our turfbuilding and perk-barrel instincts have been pushing demands on members and the House toward the infinite. We have been generating more work for ourselves than we can possibly handle.
All this might be justified as necessary to right the balance with the executive branch or improve the quality of legislation. But if anything, the quality of legislation has been declining in recent years precisely because our subcommittees are less respresentative of the House and thus are reporting intefrior and unacceptable legislation.
The unrepresentative nature of our committee system is partially due to the requirement of the Democratic Cacus and Democrats have "firm working majorities" on certain key committees, a clever euphemism, if ever there was one, for packing these committees with a disproportionate number of Democrats. Though Democrats now make up only 56 percent of the House, they control 60 percent of the seats on the Budget and Appropriations committee, 66 percent of the seats on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, and 69 percent of the seats on the Rules Committee, which controls the legislative flow and debate and amendment conditions over all major bills. These are the very committees that hold the kkey to whether the 1980 electoral mandate and the president's economic recovery program will be fully implemented.
Because members are spread so thinly over a multitude of subcommittee assignments, the House has resorted to "phantom legislating" to get any work done. As few as two members of a committee of subcommittee may constitute a quorum to conduct a hearing, and as few as one-third of the members is sufficient to transact any business.
Moreover, at last count all but four of the 22 House committees permitted proxy voting. It is not unusual for a subcommittee chairman to work his will on a bill with a pocketful of proxies.
In 1974, the House adopted a new rule permitting the speaker to refer bills to more than one committee simultaneously. In the last Congress, it was estimated that such multiply referred bills take four times as long to process and have less chance of passage than singly referred bills.
If the committee system is the foundation of the legislative process, then it is today a crumbling foundation that threatens to bring the entire House down, and with it our representative form of government. What is needed is a new blueprint for a House that works. To that end, I have introduced a resolution entitled "the commmittee improvement amendments," a package of House rules changes aimed at making the legislative process more manageable and accountable. This resolution would:
Limit all committees, except Appropriations, to no more than six subcommittees, and all members to no more than four subcommittee assignments. This would eliminate 26 subcommittees that existed in the last Congress.
Eliminate phantom legislating procedures by abolishing proxy voting and restoring majority quorum requirements.
Require that each year the House adopt an overall committee staff ceiling to ensure that we regain control over runaway staffing.
Eliminate the practice of simultaneously referring the same bill to more than one committee.
Require equitable party ratios on all House committee to ensure true representation.
Strengthen congressional oversight of federal agencies and programs by requiring formal House adoption of oversight agendas at the beginning of each Congress.
As much as House members may revere the institution, we are also experts on its imperfections and failings. We have an affirmative responsibility to the people we repreent to do everything we can to make their House work for them. My committee improvement amendments are one modest attempt to fulfill that responsbility.