As an institution, Congress is in trouble. The signs are all too clear. Congress is slow to respond with solutions to many of our basic problems. It has failed to write sensible federal budgets. The manner in which members of Congress are elected and are compensated threatens to further distort the political system.
At the end of the useless "lame-duck" session last year, I found myself angry and frustrated. I was also embarrassed that Congress had made a ridiculous spectacle of itself in the eyes of the public.
I grew up watching Congress. My father was a congressman. My earliest memories are of listening to Sam Rayburn discuss the institution during visits to our home. I wanted someday to serve in Congress because I felt that it was a place where a person could make a meaningful contribution to his country. It hurt when I heard so many of my most able and dedicated colleagues talk about quitting sooner than they had planned. It was even worse when I began to ask myself whether Congress was really the place where I or anyone else could really get things done.
At the same time, I was encouraged. For once the press seemed to be focusing on the need for congressional reform. Editorials and columns were written on the subject. It even made front-page headlines.
Then suddenly, as often happens in Washington, our attention was diverted elsewhere. There were no more headlines, columns or editorials about the need for congressional reform.
But the problem did not go away--it just dropped from sight. Congress has not streamlined or reformed its rules and procedures for almost 40 years. It is creaking along with work methods that aren't suited to the times. It resembles a telephone switcboard designed for 10 telephones that now has 10,000 plugged into it.
In the last Congress, 80 days of precious time were consumed by filibusters on 12 different bills, nearly all of which became law in spite of the prolonged debate. Even when an overwhelming majority of senators decides to shut off a filibuster, under Senate rules a vote on the bill can still be delayed for at least 100 more hours of the Senate's time in session. With such rules, just the threat of a filibuster by one or two senators can prevent an issue from being scheduled for consideration on the Senate floor. Filibusters supported by 40 or more members of the Senate may occasionally be justified on matters of extreme national importance. However, once a filibuster is ended by a vote of 60 members of the Senate and those who have supported it have already had a full chance to debate, one or two senators should not be able to bring the entire government to a halt.
As American politics becomes more fragmented and dominated by one-issue groups, the use of the filibuster has become more common. From 1917 to 1972 there were 60 filibusters. In just the last 10 years there have been 101!
The increasing abuse of the filibuster procedure is not the only problem. According to a recent study conducted for Sen. David Pryor, in the first six months of last year almost one-third of the time of the Senate was taken up by recesses, quorum calls and other procedural time-killing devices. Congress also tends to vote during only three days each week and to remain in session almost all year long. It would be far better to have five or more full days each week and stay in session only six months each year so that members could stay in their home states for prolonged periods.
On another front, fragmented and overlapping jurisdiction of committees often slows Congress to a snail's pace as a proposed law has to be considered by so many different committees. The number of subcommittees has mushroomed to 250 and their staffs have grown from 400 to 2,000 in the last three decades.
In addition, so-called nongermane amendments, which have nothing to do with the subject matter of a bill, can be tacked onto it. For example, foreign policy amendments can be attached to agriculture bills, and vice versa.
Another problem is that the same controversial provisions and issues can come up again and again within the same year for repeat votes, thus wasting time. There should be a rule stating that, once a matter has been brought to a vote, it cannot be brought up again during the same session.
The present budget process is also obviously not working. Under it, Congress spends most of its time passing resolutions instructing itself about how to write a budget rather than passing the actual appropriations bills. In three of the last six years, Congress has failed to pass any complete budget. Nor has the process worked to restrain deficit spending. On the contrary, during the nine years since the Budget Act was adopted, more than three times as much has been added to the national debt as was added in the previous 30 years.
The citizens and taxpayers have a right to expect a more efficient and businesslike approach from Congress. Both Republican Senate leader Howard Baker and Democratic leader Robert Byrd have moved constructively in naming an ad hoc task force to recommend reforms. The group is in the process of making recommendations on limiting the post-cloture filibuster and in reducing the use of nongermane amendments. The recent Pearson-Ribicoff study also contains several recommendations worthy of consideration.
However, piecemeal efforts are not enough. Congress should create a joint House-Senate committee to focus solely on the issue of congressional reform. It should have time limit so that it does not turn into another permanent committee.
Of course, internal reform of Congress will not solve all of the nation's problems. To a large degree, the fragmentation and stalemates in Congress reflect the division and fragmentation of the American people. While reforming Congress may not be the sole answer, it is still absolutely necessary if we are to maintain the integrity of the democratic process.