A Senate-created committee has proposed fundamental changes in the structure and procedures of that body, known to admirers as the world's greatest deliberative forum and to frustrated critics as a cave of the winds.
The recommendations are certain to be controversial--Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) said they will "scare some people to death"--but the authors say they also would increase Senate effectiveness greatly.
In submitting the proposals of the Senate Study Group yesterday to the Rules Committee, which will begin considering them May 9, former senators James B. Pearson (R-Kan.) and Abraham A. Ribicoff (D-Conn.) acknowledged that the changes may stir opposition.
"A cursory glance at the recommendations," they said, "could cause one to judge the report to be quite radical, to place new and additional restraints and limitations on the Senate membership and to change the role played by single individuals or small groups of senators in the overall proceedings of the Senate. This is not the case."
But the proposals are considerable. They include:
* Creating a powerful new position: permanent presiding officer of the Senate.
* Establishing an agreed-upon annual Senate agenda and for each legislative week with provisions making it harder to deviate from that agenda.
* Putting restraints on individual senators' rights to delay proceedings by such devices as quorum calls and insisting on record votes and the right to place holds on items awaiting consideration on the floor. There also would be new restrictions on debate that might shorten, if not eliminate, filibusters.* Restructuring the present congressional budget process, putting it on a two-year cycle and abolishing the system of reconciliation under which budget resolutions are made binding. The powers of the Senate Budget Committee, which the study said have been expanded to the point "it is actually taking over the responsibilities and jurisdiction of the other standing committees," would be absorbed by the Finance and Appropriations committees.
* Consolidating the various Senate committees, limiting the number of committee assignments for each senator and altering the role and composition of subcommittees drastically.
Televising Senate debates on major issues, something never before done in that chamber. The House now permits TV cameras to record its daily floor business.
Behind all these recommendations, the product of nearly a year's study as required by a Senate resolution backed by the leaders of both parties, lies a conviction that Senate procedures need major changes in order, as the report puts it, "to help the Senate better meet its increasingly complex and busy modern agenda."
Frustration with the way the Senate works is hardly new, nor are attempts to change it. Six years ago, for example, basic changes were made in the committee system. Permanent select committees and special committees were created to go along with the 15 standing committees. Now, that system would be changed again because "this picture is becoming more and more cumbersome."
But beyond that sort of structural problem there exists a deeper, more general concern shared by many senators, both Republicans and Democrats.
At a briefing for reporters to discuss the study, Sens. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.), chairman of the Rules Committee, and Wendell H. Ford (D-Ky.), the ranking Democrat, complained of such problems as the trivialization of serious issues, procedural delays, fiddling with roll calls, cliffhanger votes at 2 in the morning and growing strains on senators and staffs.
Perhaps the greatest concern, from the standpoint of statecraft, was what Mathias called the Senate's present "serious problems in reaching decisions . . . that can have a disastrous effect, if not a destructive one, on the democratic process."
As an example of problems, the Pearson-Ribicoff study points to the way the Senate's presiding officer now functions. Neither the vice president, the duly constituted official to hold that post, nor the president pro tem of the Senate, the second designated such person, finds it possible to occupy the chair except in a limited fashion. The result is a constant rotation of senators, many of them freshman, who often preside on an hourly basis.
"The presiding officers of the Senate today in no way command the respect, impartiality and prestige essential to the command of an orderly procedure by the Senate, as compared to that of presiding officers of various parliaments throughout the world," the study said.