The Elephants' Gavotte


Washington -- On a morning not long ago, the senior senator from Montana, Max Baucus, introduced a bill to punish violations of international trade agreements. He took about 12 minutes to outline its terms. Then we heard:

Mr. Baucus: Mr. President, I suggest the absence of a quorum.

The Presiding Officer: The clerk will call the roll.

Fifteen minutes passed. Then John Heinz, the senior senator from Pennsylvania, entered the deserted chamber.

Mr. Heinz: Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the order for a quorum call be rescinded.

The Presiding Officer: Without objection, it is so ordered. The senator from Pennsylvania is recognized.

A half-hour passed in which several senators spoke about nothing in particular. Mostly they spoke to themselves, in monologues or soliloquies, for no one hung around to listen. Then Don Riegle of Michigan said, "Mr. President, I yield the floor and suggest the absence of a quorum."

The Presiding Officer: The clerk will call the roll.

And so the elephants' gavotte continued. Sen. Dave Boren of Oklahoma has made some calculations. By his accounting, quorum calls -- most of them pointless -- consume at least 25 percent of the Senate's total hours in session. In any given year, the equivalent of 45 legislative days will be frittered away in procedural delays. He intends to make one more effort to do something about a situation that gets worse with every year, and that contributes to the declining prestige of Congress with the American people.

Back in 1946, Rep. Mike Monroney of Oklahoma and Sen. Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin succeeded in a major overhaul of congressional procedures. The Senate wound up with only l5 committees, the House with only 19. Each of the committees had a few subcommittees, but there weren't many.

Today the appalling fact is that Congress struggles through a jungle of 298 committees and subcommittees. More than half the members enjoy the title of "Mr. Chairman." When the Clean Air Act of 1990 went into conference last year, upward of 150 conferees were involved.

After the Monroney-LaFollette reforms of 1946, fewer than 2,000 persons were employed as staff to members and to their committees. The figure today is closer to 12,000. Senator Boren concedes that over the past 35 years the volume of mail has enormously increased. The complexity of such issues as trade, taxation, environmental regulations and social entitlements has become more intense. Services to constituents are more burdensome, if only because there are more constituents.

Even so, Mr. Boren insists, the proliferation of staff has gotten out of hand. Jobs on Capitol Hill attract bright young men and women, agreeable to long hours and low pay. They have ideas, causes, legislative goals. They generate bills, reports, resolutions, research. As one consequence of this frenetic energy, the average bill now runs to 20 pages. (The average was four pages as recently as 1970.) Last year saw 6,973 bills introduced. Only 225 were enacted into law.

There are other consequences. A senator confers with his staff aide on the farm bill. Then the aide calls another senator's office. "Who's your guy on agriculture?" Substantive conversations between individual senators have become rare events. Members meet when they go to the floor for formal roll calls. Otherwise weeks may go by without personal contacts.

Senator Boren's idea is to make one more valiant effort toward procedural reforms. He will be joined by Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana. Together they will seek formation of a small, bipartisan task force with a mandate to study the whole structure of Congress and to make recommendations. Mr. Boren wants a fresh look at scheduling, at proxy voting, at the Senate's anonymous "holds," at the excesses of senatorial comity.

The task is a task for Hercules. "The essence of government," said James Madison, "is power." Mr. Boren's ideas necessarily go to the yielding of power, but power is more addictive than cocaine and much harder to give up. The senator feels that members themselves are so frustrated by the situation that they are prepared to welcome at least some reforms. Maybe so, says the voice of hope. The voice of experience adds: but probably not.

James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.

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