One of the unstated causes of the unfolding lobbying scandal swirling around Jack Abramoff is the extensive changes to the nature of both the membership and staffing of Congress over the last 30 years and a breakdown of longstanding legislative procedures.
These days, most congressional aides -- and even some of the members -- look like they are barely out of college. And although they may be smart and well educated, they have no depth of experience and no commitment to the Congress as an institution. They are simply there to get a line on their resume before going off to become lobbyists and make the big bucks.
It wasn't like that when I started work in the House of Representatives 30 years ago. A great many aides had made a career out of working on Capitol Hill, and it wasn't unusual to work with people who had been around for 20 or more years. There was a loyalty to their bosses and to the legislative process then that seems to have completely evaporated.
One reason for this is that the commitment of members of Congress to the institution and to good government has sharply waned. In 1976, when I first became a congressional aide, there were members around who had been elected in the 1920s -- Rep. Wright Patman, Democrat of Texas, is one in particular that I remember. He took office in 1929 and often talked about the financial difficulties his grandfather faced after the Civil War, which shaped Patman's own views about banks forever afterward.
Congressmen of that era weren't just marking time until they became lobbyists. Being a lobbyist to them was like being a prostitute -- it was something you did only when desperate. Their main goal was simply to acquire enough seniority to become a committee chairman, because that is where the real power in Congress was.
Congressmen like Wilbur Mills, Democrat of Arkansas and longtime chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, had enormous power to shape legislation, and smart presidents deferred to them and sought their advice before advancing a major proposal. For example, John F. Kennedy was very influenced by Mills in developing his 1963 tax plan, as we now know from White House tape recordings (online at www.whitehousetapes.org).
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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