Haunted by memories of how close it came to legislative meltdown last year in dealing with the federal budget, Congress is coming under increasing pressure from key members to review and revamp its operations.
One of the foremost advocates of a comprehensive overhaul of the creaky congressional machinery is Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), who is also a key figure in the stalled efforts to reform Congress's campaign financing laws.
Boren said in an interview last week that he is "putting out feelers" to other lawmakers in both houses to assess support for a top-to-bottom reexamination of Congress's operations modeled after the post-World War II reform effort that was co-chaired by another Oklahoma Democrat, then-Rep. A.S. Mike Monroney.
Boren said he also plans to discuss the plan with Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), who claims a well-developed "patience muscle" but found it severely strained toward the end of last year's especially chaotic session. Streamlining some of the Senate's most troublesome rules and procedures is essential to improving its operations and restoring public confidence in Congress, Mitchell told reporters in an end-of-the-session interview.
Monroney's joint effort with Sen. Robert M. LaFollette Jr., a Wisconsin Progressive, resulted in the 1946 Legislative Reorganization Act, which strengthened Congress in a number of ways to deal more effectively with an executive branch that had grown enormously in size and power during the war.
But ironically, the reorganization also spawned developments that have now gotten out of hand, in the view of Boren and many other lawmakers, including a proliferation of subcommittees and explosion of congressional staff, which together often choke the legislative process.
As Boren sees it, a new House-Senate examination would look at the subcommittee structure, staff size, volume of bills, budget process and rules of the Senate that impede orderly consideration of legislation, among other things.
"It's been about 50 years since Congress took a comprehensive look at itself . . . and I think it's clear we need to do so again. I think the public is demanding it," Boren said.
As an Oklahoman, Boren is a reminder not only of old reforms that may have outlived their usefulness but also of new ones that may be forced on Congress if it does not act first to reform itself. Oklahoma was one of three states whose voters approved term limitations for state lawmakers in last November's elections, and pressure for a constitutional amendment to limit congressional terms is beginning to build in other states as well.
People are angry, said Boren, and Congress will ignore the anger at its own peril.