The House Judiciary Committee, one of the last remaining liberal outposts on Capitol Hill, has taken on the role of cork in the New Right's fizzing bottle of political issues.
Currently pending before the committee--buried there, sponsoring members complain--are bills and constitutional amendments to do such varied things as ban abortions, put prayer back in public schools, institute a federal death penalty, ban or limit school busing for racial reasons, narrow the federal courts' authority, weaken gun-control laws and require a balanced federal budget.
Committee leaders have not advertised what they are up to, but they acknowledge that most of these measures will never see light of day unless extraordinary procedural means are used to pry them loose.
Because of this, and because most strategists think that many of these measures would swiftly pass if they reached the House floor this election year, Judiciary has become one of the focal points in the fight over social issues.
Gary Curran, legislative consultant for American Life Lobby, calls the committee "the most liberal in the U.S. Congress. It totally frustrates the will of the people . . . . Conservatives have gotten little or nothing out of that committee. As the country has moved to the right, the Judiciary Committee has moved even further to the left, if that's possible."
Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.) says his committee behaves the way it does because is being asked to "disregard the Constitution, to change it, turn it on its head. I feel . . . it's incumbent on us to be a guardian of the Constitution, to insure those basic rights, to be sure this government can still do the job it has done for all of us."
"On matters pertaining to amendments to the Constitution, you don't proceed very lightly," he said.
The Judiciary Committee may be best known for its role in the Nixon impeachment inquiry when Rodino's measured handling of the nationally televised hearings made him a celebrity almost overnight.
The committee also has been the driving force behind all major civil rights legislation enacted during this century, as well as the Equal Rights Amendment and the constitutional amendment to give congressional representation to the District of Columbia.
More recently, the committee has thwarted administration efforts to wipe out the Legal Services Corporation, which provides free legal help to the poor.
The committee--packed with liberals like Rodino, Robert Kastenmeier (D-Wis.), Don Edwards (D-Calif.), John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.)--stands in stark contrast to its counterpart in the Senate, now dominated by conservatives such as Chairman Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), John P. East (R-N.C.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.). The Senate committee is the source of many bills now being stalled in Rodino's committee.
Paul Weyrich of the conservative Committee for a Free Congress says the House committee, besides disagreeing with most of the social legislation backed by the New Right, is also responding to a desire by the Democratic leadership to fend off recorded votes on volatile issues, particularly in an election year.
"These social issues are the Achilles heel of the northern liberal Democrats. They despise going on record on these issues," he said.
But Rep. M. Caldwell Butler (R-Va.) said that although he would prefer recorded votes on some of these issues, many Republicans are as uncomfortable as the Democrats in dealing with them. "A lot of people . . . are relieved to have the committee there as a graveyard," he said.
Rodino, who has been on the panel for 34 years, said Republicans have come to him and said, "Mr. Chairman, . . .we're counting on you."
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a freshman on the committee, calls the phenomenon a "reverse Houdini," referring to the famous escape artist. "He'd have someone tie him in knots and his act would be to untie the knots. Legislators tie themselves in knots and then say to their constituents, 'I'd like to vote for that bill, but I'm all tied in knots.'"
Kastenmeier, whose subcommittee receives most of the bills to limit court jurisdiction, denies that he is an obstructionist. He said he's simply trying to protect the country from the damage those bills could do.
"By a simple majority vote, the Congress could determine that the courts had no jurisdiction to judge a whole series of issues. That means Congress could--by simple majority votes--determine questions involving constitutional rights," he said.
Father Robert Drinan, a former member of the committee who is now president of Americans for Democratic Action, said that if the House feels strongly about an issue, a majority can always pull it out of committee. "It's not as if the committee is preventing democratic procedures. The Republicans would do it if they had the votes. The majority rules!" he said.
The committee generally sits on a bill by ignoring it. Butler complains that in the rare instance when a hearing is scheduled, "They hear it to death."
As a result, proponents of those controversial bills must use "discharge petitions" to try to pull them away from the reluctant committee. Under that process, a majority of the House members (218) must sign a discharge petition.
There have been only 26 discharges since the procedure was adopted in 1910, and the last was in 1979 when Rep. Ronald M. Mottl (D-Ohio) sought to bring to the floor a constitutional amendment banning school busing for the purpose of racial desegregation. He got the amendment to the floor, but it was defeated 209 to 216, far short of the two-thirds needed for a constitutional amendment.
Mottl is trying again this year and has collected 209 signatures, just nine short of what he needs. There has also been talk in the House of circulating a discharge petition to dislodge another bill forbidding the courts from ordering busing in school-desegregation cases. That bill has passed the Senate and, unlike a constitutional amendment, requires only a simple majority vote.
Kastenmeier said he will hold hearings on the measure and added, "It may well be that the subcommittee will alter the bill so substantially that we would feel free to report it out" to the full House.
Edwards is also deliberating over whether to hold hearings on a constitutional amendment the Reagan administration plans to submit to allow prayer in public schools. "That's a tough one," he said. "It's so popular with the American people. And how do you vote against God?"
There have been some ruffled feathers occasionally on the committee as the liberals continue to do as they please. Last year, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) was outraged when Democrats did not attend hearings on a criminal code revision and simply cast their votes by prearranged proxy.
"I forced them into a reading of the criminal code, line by line, for six straight weeks," he said. The Democrats began to attend the hearings.
"I think the American people expect Congress to act one way or another on a lot of the burning social issues. . . . The nice political thing to do is to duck out completely, but that's not the job we were sent here to do," he said.
But generally, Republicans on the committee also feel it would be wrong to rush into some of these issues. Butler, for instance, said he will not sign discharge petitions because he believes that the committee process, with witness testimony and time for deliberation, is necessary. Without that, he said, decisions would be based simply on politics and the rhetoric of the moment.
One staff member points out, "The Judiciary Committee is slightly different from the others. Other committees are putting through a public works project or maybe a change in the tax law. But we've got a committee of lawyers, and when you're dealing with the court system, with civil rights, with the kind of things we deal with, they tend to be less partisan, more deliberative . . . .
"Basically, they have a normal lawyer's attitude--which is to hold the line and not do these things too swiftly. Amending the Constitution was meant to be as difficult as possible," he said.