April 9, 1973
Vol. XII, No. 2
Congressional Comeback:
A Slumbering Giant Awakens

"When we're through changing, we're through" - Bruce Barton

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.


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

Philadelphia to be closest to the people. Here's what you'd find:
* Your career is governed by rigid, totally encompassing seniority; no serious challenge is in sight. A small group of older men hold not only the key chairmanships, but most of the subcommittee and joint committee chairs, and nearly all other powerful assignments as well. "To get along, go along" you're advised, which translates -- don't rock the boat, in a decade or two you'll get a piece of the action.

* Voting in the House is still done as it was in the time of Henry Clay by a tedious 35-40 minute calling of the roll.

* To your amazement you find that the House takes no record votes on the majority of great issues, because key amendments are not recorded. You've campaigned to vote this way or that on a dozen major issues but you have no opportunity to show you're doing what you said you would.

* While Senators add on all kinds of amendments to tax, trade and social security measures, your voting on these vital issues is controlled by the tradition of the 'closed rule,' meaning that on a 400-page bill you vote 'yes' or 'no' on the whole bill. The House, you are told, is too cumbersome and uninformed to take up such amendments.

* You struggle along in relative obscurity, because the House forbids radio or television coverage of its hearings, while the Senate does just the opposite.

* Your party has no functioning caucus and rarely meets. Nor does it have any effective policy committee and there are few channels through which an ordinary member can make his desires and frustrations known to the leadership.

* The House has barely established an Ethics Committee and it is doubtful whether the committee and its disclosure provisions will work or be enforced.

* There is little control over campaign financing; your election to Congress is heavily dependent on funds received from anonymous special interest groups.

* Congress has no mechanism to evaluate complex scientific and technical proposals before it.

Today, the startling fact is, not a single one of those

conditions exists anymore! It might be interesting to look a little closer at what has happened and how it came about.


In the middle and late '60s there was increasing demand among reform minded congressmen, political scientists, journalists and citizens themselves for Congress to examine its way of doing things in order to strengthen its capacity to carry out its responsibilities.

This pressure began to build with the 1966 scandals surrounding Representative Adam Clayton Powell and Senator Thomas Dodd. These two unfortunate men are largely responsible for the establishment in 1967 of "Ethics Committees" of the House and Senate with power to enforce codes of conduct and power to require Members to report their outside business interests, honoraria and other pertinent financial information on a regular basis. This movement towards public accountability led Congress, less than four years later, to legislate significant reforms in the way campaigns are financed -- the first such law in almost 50 years.

While Congress concerned itself with ethics and campaign expenditures, it was also becoming interested in reform of its own internal structure. Many Members, myself included, were frustrated by the all powerful seniority system which dealt power to committee chairmen, leaving little influence to the Speaker and the rank and file. In 1968, in an attempt to help alleviate this situation, I made an unprecedented and what turned out to be largely symbolic challenge to Speaker John McCormack. I was clobbered 178-58, but I had tried. I believe my attempt at highlighting the increasingly intolerable frustration many of us younger members felt added impetus to the mood for change that was slowly gaining momentum on the Hill.

Finally, after years of delay, Congress in 1970 passed the landmark Legislative Reorganization Act, an idea whose time had truly come. This act measurably improved the capacity of Congress to do its job and began to change the whole character of the House as an institution. For example:

* For the first time in history, the House was permitted to record votes on amendments. As a result, members no longer can secretly support amendments which entirely gut a bill, and then turn around and vote for the bill. Without this reform, the SST would never have been defeated.

* An electronic voting system was authorized for the House -- four decades after many of our "backward" state legislatures had begun using them. This system, which began operating in the House this year, replaces the slow droning roll calls, cuts in half the time it takes to vote, and visibly brings the House out of the quill pen era.
* And, 20 years after the television screen became a major source of every day news for most Americans, the House finally invited cameras and microphones to its committee deliberations.

At about the same time as these changes were occurring, the Democratic Caucus in the House, largely at the urging of the Democratic Study Group, began to revive itself. In 1969 the caucus, under a change of rules, agreed to meet at least once a month. This was the first step towards making the caucus an important instrument of change. The next step was the forming of an 11-member committee, chaired by Representative Julia Butler Hansen of Washington, to study and review rules and practices of the caucus. In 1971 the full caucus adopted two important recommendations of this committee. They were:

* Seniority would no longer be the sole criterion for selecting committee chairmen. If 10 members demanded a vote on the chairman, one would be held. This procedure fell far short of requiring regular votes on committee leaders but, nevertheless, the principle was established that they could be challenged.
* A far-reaching "spread the action" rule was adopted. It specified that no Member could hold more than one subcommittee or full committee chairmanship. This resulted in about 40 new subcommittee chairmen and gave a piece of the action to all kinds of bright young men and women who otherwise would have been frozen out for many years.

With the 1971 Democratic Caucus action, the House, so long a slumbering giant, had finally begun to stir. Many of the reforms were technical in nature but, as any political scientist will tell you, the things that give a legislative body life or dry it up are often technicalities.

Congress is a unique institution with its own peculiar way of doing things. Much that goes on here is indeed complicated and technical, even for us. Yet an attempt must be made to understand its intricacies if one is to

understand the institution. Although congressional procedure is not exactly an all-American attention grabber, it's one of the most important facets of Congress. For, what Congress does to its own procedure points the way to what Congress will do for you; it indicates what sort of legislative body it will be in the years to come.


By January of 1973 the stage was set for the most productive Democratic Caucus action of the last two decades. Over a series of January and February meetings my fellow Democrats took these important steps:

Automatic Vote on Chairmen: The caucus adopted a rule requiring an automatic secret ballot on every committee chairman. None of the senior men or women were voted down, but the precedent was set. No longer is seniority an automatic guarantee of elevation to committee leadership.

Open Committee Meetings: The caucus adopted a vital, far-reaching anti-secrecy resolution which makes open committee meetings the rule and closed meetings the exception, rather than vice versa. This is a major step toward ending secrecy in Congress.

Members' Bill of Rights: The caucus adopted new rules for committee assignments designed to make committee chairmen responsive to the majority and to spread the desirable jobs more equitably among senior and junior members. It stated that all Members are guaranteed at least one major committee assignment.

Closed Rule Restriction: The caucus voted to modify the practice of closed rules for bills emanating from the Ways and Means Committee. This means that when Members want to add an amendment to tax, trade and social security measures, they will probably have that right.

In addition, the caucus strengthened the hand of its elected leaders by giving them a direct voice in Democratic members' committee assignments and it established, on my motion, a new Steering and Policy Committee, consisting of the formal leadership and 12 representatives elected from different regions of the country. This committee shifts responsibility from the committee chairmen to the elected leadership and to a cross section of the rank and file. It opens up the power structure to more and younger Members and gives them a greater opportunity to influence party policies. (It is interesting to note that of the four caucuses on Capitol

Hill only the House Democrats lacked a viable policy committee until this year).

The net effect of the reforms we've been discussing is that the Speaker and the House leadership have been strengthened and given the tools to lead, and less senior Members have been given greater responsibility. Committee chairmen are still mighty important -- and they should be -- but they now are more likely to be responsive to their colleagues and their countrymen. As a result of the caucus changes the House today is more effective, more open and more democratic than in the past.

I do not mean to leave you with the impression that Republicans in the House are not interested in reform, or haven't helped. They have, but since Democrats control Congress, the majority party caucus is the only place where certain of the most basic reforms could occur. Nor do I mean to suggest that Senate reform is not important. It is, but in the past 40 years the House has been much more resistant to change than the Senate and consequently has been in much greater need of reform. And finally, I do not want to imply that the millenium has arrived on Capitol Hill. There is still more that needs to be done and indeed, as long as we have a Congress, there must be a continuing effort to update its procedures and ways of doing things.


As we go into 1974 and the years ahead I would put the following on my personal agenda for the future:

* The single most vital change needed is some kind of Congressional budgeting procedure along the lines being discussed by the Joint Committee on Budget Control. If Congress is to exercise its vital power of the purse and balance the Presidency, as I noted in my last newsletter, it must have the machinery to produce its own budget recommendations and develop its own expertise in this area. At present, when each chamber gets the budget it immediately breaks it down into categories, never dealing with the federal budget as a whole.

* Congress must restore its rightful role in regard to "war powers." We must never again permit the executive branch to involve us in a protracted war, like Vietnam, without Congressional approval.

* Congress must further improve its campaign reform legislation. The 1971 Campaign Finance Act was a vast improvement but the Watergate and related scandals dramatize that some outrageous loopholes still exist. I favor public financing of elections as the ultimate reform, but until we reach that goal,

there ought to be a rigid limit on the amount of money anyone can contribute to a political campaign, and really tight overall limits on what candidates can spend.

* Congress must reorganize its committee structure. The business of Congress is largely done by its 300 committees and subcommittees, yet for more than a quarter of a century nothing has been done to streamline their operation or make them reflect current national needs and concerns. The House has formed a bi-partisan group, chaired by Representative Richard Bolling of Missouri, to study this problem. It will make its recommendations at the end of this Congress, and hopefully this will lead to much needed reorganization.

* The franking law should be clarified so that Members will clearly know what mail can and cannot be sent under the Congressional "frank" at taxpayers expense. I have introduced legislation to establish some sensible guidelines in this area.

* And, Congress must utilize its new computer capacity, its Congressional Research Service, and the new Office of Technology Assessment for better information; it must make its powerful appropriations subcommittees more representative and responsive; it must do something about its automatic "leadership ladder" so that each Congressional generation can freely choose its own leaders; it must do a better job of its year-round scheduling.


Congress in modern times has been a favorite target for editorial writers and cartoonists. Our obvious difficulties have in many cases been self-inflicted. But when there is important and constructive change the public ought to know about it. This Congressional comeback occurs at a time when we desperately need the legislative branch to assert its rightful role to balance an increasingly powerful Presidency.

I favor strong, activist Presidents, but our system of separated powers and checks and balances won't work unless we also have strong, vital, well-lead Congresses. The dollar is a little sick this Spring of 1973. But the good news is that another chronic patient -- the Congress -- is feeling much better, thank-you! As I said earlier, that may just turn out to be one of the most important stories of this decade.

Previous Report: March 9, 1973 -- Hold Up At The White House, Showdown With The Congress
Next Report: May 4, 1973 -- Some Chickens Come Home to Roost: The Energy Binge Is Over

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