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'What's Wrong With Congress'

February 14, 1988

The Fritz articles might be called shotgun journalism. That is, most major (and many minor) complaints about Congress were touched upon. But the wheat was not separated from the chaff. So Sen. Jake Garn (R-Utah) is upset. I would be upset too if I had lost my committee chairmanship. But does that mean that there is a problem? The series provided no clarification. Important problems were often passed over in a sentence or two, while minor gripes were given extensive attention.

There are important internal problems in Congress. Most notable is the amount of time that legislators spend on representative and electoral activities (including raising money) to the detriment of legislative work. Following that is the increased influence of interest groups, inadequate oversight, megabills, increased use of the filibuster and increased House Republican obstructionism. To the extent that these issues were discussed the series was useful.

Not all recent changes in Congress are problems. Some, such as increased obstructive behavior by House Republicans, are. But some (member independence) are definite improvements over the past (the absolute power of chairmans); and others are creatures of necessity (megabills), designed to keep a bad situation (lack of White House vision) from getting worse. The articles would have been vastly improved if some of these distinctions had been made.

The real problem in Washington today is not in Congress. In many respects Congress is functioning better now than it ever has. Congressional Quarterly (Dec. 27) felt that the last session was "remarkably productive." But Congress has to cope with a situation created by a President who is both one of the most popular yet least competent of all presidents. The fundamental problem in Washington today is not an internal congressional problem, but rather that Congress, a "followership" body, in the absence of presidential policy leadership, is being looked to by many to assume a role for which it is not well suited.

The congressional budget process, for instance, has many shortcomings, but it could work if the White House did not threaten to veto any significant tax bill. Indeed, the nation might well be worse off than it presently is were it not for the trench warfare that Congress has been fighting and winning since 1982.

Ultimately, the series failed because it failed to come to grips with both the situation created by a lack of presidential leadership and the realities of a legislative body. Opinion polls have often shown that Congress is an unpopular institution. Much of this relates to the fact that people do not understand the role of legislatures. This series has done little to help overcome that ignorance.



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