Howard Baker is normally as jolly as Father Christmas, but in recent days he must have wanted to say to one or another of his filibustering Republican colleagues, "How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!" The sons of the very early morning included Sens. Helms, East, Nickles and Humphrey, embarrassments to North Carolina (twice), Oklahoma and New Hampshire respectively.
Trying to reason with such persons in the waning hours of a lame-duck session is like trying to discuss golf with King Lear while he is raging on the heath. Unfortunately, Senate rules that allow filibusters reflect accommodations that are more subtle than some senators. Senate procedures measure intensity of feeling as well as numerical strength. The filibuster, an expression of intense opposition, is used frivolously when the intensity is disproportionate to the principle at issue.
Proper filibusters--proper in that they satisfied the proportionality standard -- were waged over civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s, and over presidential war-making authority in the early 1970s. Those filibusters ventilated intense feelings about basic rights, war and peace and constitutional propriety.
But what epochal issue caused pent-up passion to spill from the recent Republican filibusterers? Just a nickel tax on a gallon of gasoline. And what was the principle at issue? That taxes were yucky? Would Helms, East, Nickles and Humphrey have filibustered about four cents? Three? What would they have done about 10 cents--threatened to blow up the Washington Monument?
The trivialization of the filibuster was not the main reason why Congress staggers to the end of the session looking like the schooner Hesperus that sailed the wintry sea. Congress is buckling beneath the strain because there are still just 535 seats, and the business of legislation, oversight and constituent service grows geometrically as the country grows more clamorous.
To help itself, and especially to enable it to peg up with the executive branch, Congress has provided itself with an enormous staff. Since the dark ages (1970-72) when I was a member of that staff, it has grown rapidly to 30,000. The result is a bureaucratization that causes government to congeal like cold mashed potatoes.
The staff has a professional interest in the kind of complexity that deepens the senators' dependence on staff. And the staff members -- mostly young and full of animal energy -- fill the hours by pestering the executive branch with inquiries, and finding ways to fine-tune executive policies.
The growth of congressional staff also reflects a primal urge in institutions. James Q. Wilson of Harvard, my moral tutor concerning all things governmental, argues that organizations come to resemble the organizations with which they are in constant conflict. Pat Moynihan has elaborated this insight into the Iron Law of Emulation.
He notes that Teddy Roosevelt in 1902 built the West Wing of the White House, where the Oval Office is. Until then, presidents and their staffs of three or four worked in the president's living room. In 1903, the House voted itself its first office building. In 1904 the Senate did likewise.
"Originally," Moynihan says, "a senator's office was his desk on the Senate floor. These desks proved inadequate, and in the 1830s three-inch-high mahogany writing boxes were added to the desks. Daniel Webster refused to have his desk altered on the grounds that if his predecessor could have done without the additional space, so could he."
By 1978, Moynihan says, the Senate alone had a budget larger than the budgets of 74 countries. Today the White House chief of staff has a staff which is, or so the newspapers say, at daggers drawn with the staff of presidential counselor Ed Meese.
The president acquired a Bureau of the Budget (now OMB) in 1921, giving him, as Moynihan says, a huge advantage in dealing with Congress. Congress established a budget office in the 1970s. Now there is strategic parity: both sides have budget offices skilled at fiscal management and economic controversy. But as 1982 winds down, the government cannot enact a budget for a fiscal year now three months old.
The judicial branch is clogged because Americans believe that every social issue can be cast as a conflict of individual rights, and that every dispute can and should be adjudicated. The legislative and executive branches also reflect the tangled moods of the populace: the insistent desire for omniprovident government, and the equally strong resentment about the cost of that. The most dismaying fact about the U.S. government today is that it is indeed what it is designed to be: representative. It represents the country's conflicting desires.