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Process Held Unruly : New Activists Dilute Power in Congress

WHAT'S WRONG WITH CONGRESS?: Second of four articles.

January 25, 1988|SARA FRITZ | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Democratic Rep. Charles E. Schumer has no farms in his Brooklyn, N.Y., district, and he is not a member of the House Agriculture Committee. But when he discovered that American farmers were dividing their land into more than one operating unit to get around a rule limiting agricultural subsidies to $50,000 per farm, he felt compelled to do something.

"I'm an urban guy," Schumer noted, "but nobody on the Agriculture Committee was doing anything to stop it, and so I got on the floor and put in an amendment to stop it."

The amendment drew Schumer into six months of back room negotiations that eventually produced compromise legislation on farm subsidies. And it added one more item to a long list of issues--including housing, immigration, the homeless, consumer banking, Third World debt and trade reform--that Schumer now views as part of his own, personal legislative domain.

By all accounts, Schumer's passion for difficult legislative issues has made the 37-year-old liberal New Yorker part of the solution on a host of specific issues, and in the process both an unusually productive member of Congress and a man widely regarded as a rising young star in American politics.

But Schumer's impulse to jump into everything that catches his eye also makes him part of the problem, in the view of congressional colleagues and outside experts who are concerned about what they see as the persistent inability of the House and Senate to take care of the nation's business.

More Hard Working

"We've probably never had as many good people in Congress--with a paucity of result," said Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Sacramento), a 10-year House veteran who is regarded by his colleagues as a keen observer of its operation. "I think this place is more honest, hard working than it has been at various times in our history, but that doesn't mean we're getting the job done."

Schumer practices a type of legislative activism that has become the norm rather than the exception among the hundreds of young, ambitious men and women now serving in the 100th Congress--activism spurred by the congressional reforms of the 1970s that eliminated the tyranny of the seniority system. "People ask me why I am involved in so many things," he said. "The answer is: I love the legislative process. I get my highs by taking good ideas and putting them into reality."

Yet even though Schumer and other earnest young activists have unquestionably raised the quality of legislative debate on Capitol Hill over the past decade, their strong desire to prove themselves on a wide range of issues is also at the very heart of what makes the Congress such an unruly institution--unable to get its work done on time and frequently incapable of agreeing on legislation that almost everyone thinks is necessary.

"In the last 10 years or less, you have a new type of member," remarked Norman J. Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute who specializes in the operation of Congress. "They are clever, broad-ranging, aggressive people and they are dealing with a political system that doesn't have their roles defined nearly as clearly as they might have been 20 or 30 years ago."

Reversal of Reforms

Political scientists and many members claim Congress would be a more effective institution if, in a reversal of the reforms of the 1970s, more power were concentrated in the hands of party leaders.

And even many of the young congressional activists--frustrated themselves by their long hours, the failure of Congress to work efficiently and the lack of progress on major issues such as the budget deficit--are crying out for a return to bygone days when senior party leaders had much more control over the rank-and-file.

"When I was in the state Legislature," recalled Schumer, "you crossed the Speaker and you were gone. He picked what committees you were on. He picked the committee chairman. Here, the Speaker has none of those powers. If Iwant to vote against the Speaker, there is little he could do to me. So it might be a change for the better if we centralized more power in the hands of the Speaker. It would probably be better for the institution."

Nevertheless, while there has been some recentralization of power in the hands of congressional leaders in the past few years, it now seems unlikely that the current crop of rank-and-file members of Congress are going to sacrifice more than a modest amount of freedom in exchange for a more disciplined national legislature.

Unwilling to Yield

"Today you have 535 people in Congress who all want to be an important part of the process, who are unwilling to wait," said Sen. Paul S. Trible Jr. (R-Va.). "My sense is that congressmen and senators today are better trained and educated than in years past and they're not willing to yield their responsibilities and prerogatives to others."

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