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Inner Workings of Senate Frustrate Feinstein, Boxer : Politics: State's freshman lawmakers grapple with, and learn about, peculiarities of a complex institution.

YEAR ONE. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein in the U.S. Senate. One in an occasional series

September 19, 1993|GLENN F. BUNTING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Speaking to a visitor in her Senate office, Dianne Feinstein was interrupted by a series of annoying, high-pitched beeps that served notice of an impromptu vote in progress.

Feinstein's mood quickly turned dour as aides scurried to brief her about the pending amendment. She had less than 15 minutes to make up her mind, take private elevators and a subway to the Senate floor and cast her vote.

"This is one of the most frustrating things," Feinstein said, her voice rising in disgust. "See, I don't know what the vote is. You don't know when committee meetings are. You don't know when you can attend something or make a speech. This takes a lot of getting used to."

After nearly nine months in office, California Sens. Feinstein and Barbara Boxer continue to learn--and grapple with--the many peculiarities of a complex institution that is like no other in American government.

In separate interviews, the two Democratic senators raised a wide range of concerns about the way the Senate operates: On any given day, they never know when their work will start, when it will end or what business will be conducted. They are dismayed that Senate rules allow a single member to hold up legislative action on pressing issues. They see too much time and energy wasted on what they consider frivolous debate and procedures. And, as if representing 31 million constituents is not enough of a challenge, they say they are overloaded with too many committee assignments.

Both senators hope that in time a wave of new legislators will push the Senate to become more responsive, efficient and productive.

"I think it is very clear that people would like to see the Senate handle its business differently," Feinstein said. "They have elected some of us who ran on that theme. They will elect more. As the powers that be get the drift of it, I think they would rather get in the boat of change than sink with the tide."

It is not unusual for new senators, particularly those who once served as mayors, governors and House members, to express frustration with the Senate's sluggish pace. Legislation typically crawls, if it moves at all, because the floor schedule is subject to the consent of every senator. By definition, the Senate is a place where the interests of all 50 states are represented equally, often making it difficult for consensus to emerge.

The complaints voiced by Feinstein and Boxer fit squarely into a rising debate over legislative efficiency and whether the rules that critics say encourage obstructionism are necessary to protect the deliberative roots of the Senate.

Thomas E. Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution, said the freshman senators "are reacting to features of the contemporary Senate that are, I think, harmful to the institution, both operationally and in terms of its public image."

Indeed, many members of Congress recognize that the institution needs reform. Last year, the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress was created in response to public concerns about legislative ineffectiveness. The 24-member committee is due to file a report in December after several months of hearings. Any suggested revisions must be approved by Congress.

Some historians warn that the rush to "fix" the legislative process is overlooking the Senate's obligation to fully explore and debate issues of national importance. The Senate increasingly has ceased to perform this function, said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a leading authority and master of Senate rules.

"It is not the Senate that I once knew," Byrd said in testimony before the joint committee. "It has lost its soul. But the answer is not to be found in tinkering with process or in the pursuit of efficiency, whatever that means. The Senate was not intended to be efficient."

The concerns cited by Feinstein and Boxer stem in part from their own backgrounds in politics.

As a 10-year member of the House, Boxer was accustomed to the Democratic leadership asserting its power by limiting debate, controlling floor action and steering bills to passage. Under House rules, Republicans often are helpless in their efforts to frustrate the will of the majority party.

The Senate is vastly different, bending over backward to give enormous leeway to each member throughout the legislative process. Under rules of unanimous consent, one member can--at least temporarily--stop 99 others from considering a bill.

But the Senate rules, Boxer said, often are abused by legislators who seek "just to be an obstacle, just to stop a program." This occurred in April, Boxer said, when the Senate yielded to a Republican filibuster and abandoned President Clinton's $16.3-billion economic stimulus package.

"We are facing a lot of pressing problems that need addressing," Boxer said. "I totally believe the Senate should be a deliberative body, but I don't think that should stop us from changing some of these obstructionist rules."

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