|Several years ago, Senator Everett
Dirksen was asked about the chances of passing a certain Congressional
reform. He replied: "Ha, ha, ha, and I might add, Ho, ho, ho." Today, however,
no one up here is laughing. Congressional reform, although it receives
little publicity in the press, may just prove to be one of the biggest
stories of the decade. While not as dramatic as the ending of the Vietnam
war, or a Presidential trip to China, it's a story that ought to be told.
For what has happened in Congress, especially in the House, in the last
few years is indeed historic and will have an important effect on what
decisions are made in Washington and how they will be made.
To understand the present, we must look for a
moment at the past. Our federal system of government is a rare and unusual
one. Throughout history, most governments have been tightly centralized
with power vested in one man or in one small ruling group. But this country
has been different. The men in Philadelphia who founded our government
were haunted by the fear of unchecked power over men's lives and property.
To eliminate the potential for such tyranny, they deliberately fragmented
power into three co-equal branches of government that would check and balance
each other. For most of our 200 years as a nation, this system worked well.
Then about 40 years ago something happened we'd never experienced before:
a long, largely uninterrupted period of dominant Presidents, each leaving
the Presidency larger and more powerful.
It began when the Congress, in a depression-gripped
country, frightened by 25 percent unemployment and the specter of revolution,
gave Franklin Roosevelt blank-check legislative power. Congress had just
begun to reassert itself in the late '30's when Hitler undertook his plan
of world dominance. The back-to-back occurrence of these two unique and
wrenching events, and the cold war which followed, gave rise to a whole
generation of congressmen conditioned to wait for Presidential initiatives
and Presidential proposals, rather than to set national policy themselves.
And, while all of
|this was happening, the House of Representatives,
in an overreaction to a series of tyrannical Speakers, began to divide
up legislative power into the hands of committee chairmen who were insulated
by the seniority system.
SAME OLD WAYS
Conditioned by this acquiescent role, Congress,
in the crucial years following World War II, clung to archaic, outmoded
procedures. While Congress slept, we as a nation faced drastic and often
frightening changes as atomic fission, jet propulsion, space technology,
computers, pollution, the energy crisis, one after another burst upon us.
Virtually all our institutions -- the family, the church, universities,
schools, business corporations, courts, state legislatures, the Presidency
-- moved to keep up with the times. But Congress remained frozen in the
patterns of the past.
In 1964 I wrote a pair of reports entitled "Is
Congress Sick?" and concluded that it was. It was fair to say then, and
in subsequent years, that had one been able to bring a World War II vintage
congressman back from the grave he would have found no change either in
the physical surroundings of Congress or in the way it did its job.
Well, the good news in 1973 is that you can't
say those things any more because a quiet, widely unnoticed revolution
-- which began about five years ago -- came to fruition these last two
months. For better or for worse (and I think it's clearly better) it has
dramatically changed the character and potential of Congress, especially
of the House of Representatives.
To adequately appreciate the dimensions of change,
let's do some supposing. Suppose that you had been a Democrat elected to
Congress in 1968, just five short years ago. As the first Nixon administration
is preparing to take over, you enter the House, the "people's house" --
that branch of government intended by the men in