One way that chairmen maintained their power was by insisting that proper procedures be followed in the legislative process. Bills were referred to subcommittees, which held hearings and markups before sending them to the full committee. And then there would be more hearings and markups at the full committee level. Thorough committee reports were prepared and printed for each bill, so that every member had a clear idea of what the legislation would do long before it came up for a vote.
This was very time-consuming. It often took more than one Congress for major proposals to even get through one house, before the process started all over again in the other house. By the time a bill finally became law, it had been through the wringer several times, which helped ensure that everyone knew what was in it and how it would work, and every affected party had been heard from.
This system, which had served the country well for almost 200 years, started to break down in the 1970s, when liberal Democrats destroyed the seniority system in the House. This made it easier for them to move legislation, but also undermined the committee system itself. Also, when members knew they would no longer be rewarded automatically for service, you started to get faster turnover among members and staff, who took with them an enormous amount of institutional memory and commitment to the Congress as an institution.
When the Republicans took control in 1994, they destroyed what was left of the historical system. Most subcommittees were abolished. Major bills were brought up for committee votes without any hearings at all or even a draft bill that could be reviewed ahead of time. After a while, the Republicans even dispensed with committee markups, with the leadership using the Rules Committee to bring bills directly to the floor, often in the dead of night.
This trampling of the committee system helped give rise to the Abramoff scandal. A lobbyist no longer needed to know the substance of a bill or have long experience with the committee of jurisdiction. He just needed to know one guy in the leadership who could stick his proposal into a bill when no one was looking. By the time the bill was even printed, it would already be law.
The Republican leadership plans new restrictions on lobbying to protect themselves from Abramoff fallout. But a real reform would be to empower Congress's committees once again and make it harder for the leadership to act without proper oversight and deliberation.
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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