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Crisis on the Hill : Congress--Too Many Free Agents

WHAT'S WRONG WITH CONGRESS?: First of four articles. Next: Better and busier lawmakers, but less to show for it.

January 24, 1988|SARA FRITZ | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Founding Fathers in their effort to protect the American people from the dangers of concentrated power had created a system of checks and balances that, in this complex, fast-moving age, virtually guaranteed paralysis. . . . There could be no rash action, no rush to judgment, no tyranny by legislative majority, no uncontrolled chief executive. The difficulty of America in the late 20th Century was that the diffusion of power that had served it so well in the past had now cast it adrift.

--"The Double Man," a novel by Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Me.) and former Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.).

Even amid the euphoria and self-congratulation stirred by the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution, there is one uniquely American democratic institution that is no longer held in high regard: the Congress.

Not only has President Reagan succeeded in branding Congress as a meddler in foreign policy and the chief culprit behind today's record budget deficits, but an overwhelming number of the 535 members of the House and Senate themselves are clearly frustrated by what they see as their own inability to deal with pressing contemporary problems.

Failures and Foibles

Moreover, Americans of all political persuasions lately have come to regard the failures and foibles of members of Congress with a combination of contempt and disgust that is usually reserved for used car salesmen and loan sharks.

The problem, according to the experts, is that Congress--an institution conceived by the Founding Fathers to represent the sentiments of the majority and protect the status quo--has proved structurally incapable of responding to the ever-fluctuating economic and international realities of the 20th Century.

"The question has to be asked whether or not the concept of the checks and balances is consistent with the age of 'future shock,' where time is speeded up by events and where decision-making perhaps should be speeded up," said Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Me.).

So far, the 100th Congress has dramatically demonstrated the obvious weaknesses of this system. Despite some serious talk of reform, no one expects any marked improvement when the current House and Senate reconvene as scheduled on Monday for their second session.

Even after a 508-point drop in the stock market last October, Congress was unable to trim more than $76 billion from the deficit over the next two years--an accomplishment that Reagan likened to laboring hard and bringing forth a "mouse." In addition, the Iran-Contra hearings exposed a serious mistrust between the legislative and executive branches that appears to be eroding Congress' ability to act as a cooperative partner in governing the nation.

And more than that, the basic lawmaking process appears to be breaking down.

Not only was there a marked increase last year in partisan bickering, combined with the usual filibuster threats and late-night sessions, but most of the work of the first session of the 100th Congress was wrapped into an undigestible $600-billion spending bill that passed just three days before Christmas--almost three full months after fiscal 1988 began.

"The Congress is becoming unaccountable," lamented House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.). "The question we have to answer is: Has the machinery of government reached such a state of disrepair that it should be a matter of public concern? My answer--as subjective and prejudiced as it might be--is yes."

So frustrated are three prominent senators--Daniel J. Evans (R-Wash.), Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.) and Paul S. Trible Jr. (R-Va.)--that they have announced they will be leaving Congress at the end of 1988. "It's not the way to do the people's business," an exasperated Trible said, referring to last-minute spending legislation.

'Just Really Sick'

And Sen. Jake Garn (R-Utah) recently stunned a Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee meeting when he told an assembled throng--senators, government officials, lobbyists and reporters--"I'm to the point where I don't care what is done, as long as we do something. . . . Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I'm getting sick of all of you, just really sick."

The frustrations expressed by these and other members have contributed to a keen sense of crisis on Capitol Hill--a fear that the American system of government may itself be threatened. But underneath the fear lies a fervent hope that salvation may be within reach.

"We're at a point where the internal unhappiness has reached a state that in most institutions precedes reform," Evans said. "It may well be one of those rare times--the moment of eclipse or something--when everything is on the line."

In a survey of members of Congress made public earlier this month by the Center for Responsive Politics, nearly 95% of those questioned said changes are needed. Among the most popular potential reforms were those promising better legislative scheduling, higher pay, improved campaign financing and a reduction in the number of subcommittees.

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