Changing the culture of Congress

Bruce Bartlett

1/10/2006 12:05:00 AM - Bruce Bartlett

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).

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.