A Senator Looks at Congress
by ROBERT M. LA FOLLETTE, JR.
WARS and dictatorship have swept aside all but the merest vestiges of representative government elsewhere in the world. It should come as no surprise that representative government in the United States is on trial for its life.
Probably no other Congress in recent history suffered so much abuse and public derogation as did the last one, which served the nation throughout the grim and difficult days of 1941 and 1942. James Bryce many years ago observed that Americans “are fond of running down Congressmen.” There never has been any doubt that they are; criticizing Congressmen has always been one of the precious liberties of democracy, second only perhaps to the privilege of voting for them.
The unjustified attacks which have been made upon Congress during the last year or two, however, are of a different character. They strike a note which has sinister consequences for the future of Congress as an institution of democracy. When a newspaper columnist makes the reckless and unsupported charge that “ the ignorance and provincialism of Congress render it incapable of meeting the needs of modern government,” more is involved than the ancient and honorable pastime of “running down Congressmen.”
The hullabaloo raised in the press and on the radio over “X” cards for Congressmen, and the despicable misrepresentation of the law enacted to broaden the Federal government’s retirement system, were parts of the campaign to undermine the faith of the public in their elected representatives in Congress. In some quarters the misrepresentation was deliberate; in others it was more or less unconscious as newsmen sought to pander to the mood of the moment. The net effect, however, was the same. Congress was pilloried over every radio in the country and verbally was hanged in effigy on most front pages of the press for “politics as usual” in time of war.
Attuned to this rising crescendo of public criticism, the President used the tone of a dictator on Labor Day to charge, in substance, that Congress by its inaction had brought the country to the brink of a disastrous inflation. He threatened that, if it did not repeal certain legislative restrictions in the price-control law which were objectionable in his judgment, he would do so himself.
Without attempting to set forth all the errors in these attacks, suffice it to say that the delays with which the President charged Congress were caused as much by the indecision and confusion of the Executive branch as by the Legislative. The particular restrictions in the price-control law to which he referred had been put there only a few months before with the full support of the Secretary of Agriculture. The “X” cards were not a special and exclusive Congressional privilege. Under the initial and temporary gasoline rationing plan, OPA gave out thousands of “X” cards to government officials. Of the 15,000 issued in the District of Columbia alone, only 200 went to members of Congress.
The truth about the alleged “pension grab” is equally instructive. Actually the legislation so termed was designed to bring under the Federal government’s long-established retirement system a great number of employees not previously eligible. Coverage for elected officials was made optional, subject to certain required minimum periods of service. So far as benefits were concerned, they were to be exactly the same, in proportion to length of service and the amount of the individual’s contribution, as those enjoyed by any other Federal employee taken into the system, from the lowestsalaried clerk up to employees in the Executive branch receiving higher salaries than those paid to Senators or Congressmen.
When the President of the United States can seriously propose to repeal an act of Congress by executive order, it is time for the American people to take stock of the situation, war or no war.
WHAT is wrong with Congress? There certainly is no dearth of volunteers to answer that question. If criticism alone could make for perfection, Congress would by this time be one of the most perfect of all human institutions. From Publius to Pegler it has been a favorite target for the disgruntled, the disappointed, the intellectual snobs, and the doubters of democracy alike.
But most of this criticism is not constructive. It springs from personal prejudice, political bias, and above all from an utter lack of knowledge of the workaday problems with which a great legislative body must deal.
The current critics who accuse Congress of lacking political courage can for the most part be divided into two groups. Those who have complaints against the President’s policies uppermost in their minds charge it with being a rubber stamp and are vehement in their demands that it reassert itself and show the Executive who is boss. Those who want to overpower all opposition to his policies make loose charges that Congress yields to pressure groups — the farm lobby, the labor lobby, local interests — and other accusations of venality loo numerous to mention. Seldom does anyone express aloud the idea that members of the House and Senate, like other people, may be following their own best judgment and sincere convictions.
It is always easy to attribute the shortcomings of Congress to the fact that it no longer has men of the caliber of Clay, Calhoun, and Webster among its members. But even when those eminent statesmen were alive Alexis de Tocqueville, writing upon his visit to the United States, complained: “The race of American statesmen has evidently dwindled most remarkably in the course of the last fifty years.”
This type of criticism lumps the sins of Congress under the head of personal ignorance and political timidity. There are many critics who would have the public believe that the average Congressman is a pusillanimous ignoramus who looks under the bed every night to see if there is a voter there waiting to lop off his political head on election day.
Those to whom the simplicity of this analysis appeals would do well to ponder a statement coming from the eminent American historian, Charles A. Beard: “As a more than casual student of the Congressional Record, I venture this opinion: It is possible to pick out of the Record for the past ten years addresses (not orations) which, for breadth of knowledge, technical skill, analytical acumen, close reasoning, and dignified presentation, compare favorably with similar utterances made in the preceding century by the so-called great orators. . . . Considering the complexity of problems before Congress today, and taking account of the distractions which now beset Senators and Representatives, the quality of serious speeches in both houses is amazingly high. There is, to be sure, more trash — bad poetry, demagogic claptrap, and clotted nonsense — in the Record of the past ten years than there was in the Annals of Congress from 1789 to 1799. Yet after studying the operations of the first Congresses of the United States and the operations of the Seventy-sixth Congress, I am convinced that for disinterestedness, absence of corruption, and concern with the public good, the present body is of higher order.”
THE role of Congress in time of war is a difficult one. Sweeping powers must of necessity be concentrated in the hands of the Commander-in-Chief so that he may direct with dispatch and decision the striking power of the nation. In total war the home front is an integral part of the fighting front. Therefore it is not easy to define the limits of authority that should wisely be delegated to the President.
To preserve independent judgment where the people’s interest requires it, to protect them from the excesses of a relatively irresponsible bureaucracy operating under vast delegated powers, and at the same time to avoid the pitfalls of blind obstructionism that would impair the nation’s strength for total war is a task that is bound to be thankless and often misunderstood.
The record of Congress in this grave crisis, if it were known and appreciated, would be sufficient defense against the common types of criticism. Breaking all records for speedy action, the last Congress provided appropriations and authorizations amounting to 240 billion dollars to win this war. In the delegation of essential powers to the Commander-in-Chief, it has unhesitatingly cooperated. Where some individual members or Congressional committees took issue with the Administration’s judgment on manpower, aluminum, steel, agriculture, inflation, and rubber, events have shown that they were right and the slide-rule artists who advised the President were wrong.
But those who wish to see representative government preserved in America cannot afford to let the matter rest there. Whether the customary criticism of Congress is justified or not, whether it is constructive or not, the fact remains that it is symptomatic of a growing belief that Congress is not adequate to the “needs of modern government.”
The tasks confronting government are tremendous. The problem of mobilizing and coördinating the efforts and resources of 130 million people toward a common goal staggers the imagination.
It is estimated that in the next fiscal year the Federal budget will total 120 billion dollars, more than three quarters of the expected national income. The fate of almost every individual, certainly every business enterprise, is wrapped up in the problem of how that money is raised and spent.
The Federal government is now an organization of almost two and a half million employees, excluding the armed forces. A multitude of agencies are reaching into the homes and lives of each and every citizen, affecting what lie shall eat, what he shall wear, how warm or cold his house shall be, where he shall work, how he shall do business, what prices he shall charge, or, if he is a farmer, what he shall raise and what he will get to do it with.
It is comparatively easy to sit back and deal with these problems in their broad aspects. For example, if it is finally demonstrated that military requirements demand an additional five million men in the army this year, it is easy to calculate that it shall be recruited at the rate of 400,000 per month through Selective Service out of certain estimated reserves. But when it becomes translated into 400,000 individual cases every month, each with its problems, the needs of modern government come to light in their true proportions.
ASUCCESSFUL government must be able not only to formulate broad policies but also to apply them fairly in the individual case. The true aim of government should be to serve the individual.
In the early days of the Republic the problems of government were simpler because the economy of the nation was expanding and was to a great extent self-propelling. The vast resources of the frontier opened by government to exploitation and use offered great opportunities to those individuals who were threatened with oppression from capitalistic excesses. Except for questions of tariff, monetary policy, internal improvements, and public lands, the Federal government was left free to devote its energies to matters more strictly political.
The legislative process accordingly was more leisurely. The problems themselves were more general, except for the tariff. Consequently it was possible to draw legislation, as the separation of powers theory of the Constitution assumes, to provide in advance for most contingencies.
That is no longer true. The phrase delegating to the President or some one of his recognized agents the power to “issue such regulations and orders as he may deem necessary or proper in order to carry out the purposes and provisions of this Act” is now one of the indispensable and most significant portions of most policy legislation adopted by Congress.
The constantly growing body of executive or administrative law has become both a necessity to the operation of modern government and a threat to the constitutional function of Congress as the legislative, policy-making branch of the government.
As the function of government has become more and more technical, the administrative problems have become more significant in the formulation of legislation. Consequently there has been a growing tendency for Congress to turn to the Executive for guidance in drawing new legislation — not out of any lazy desire to avoid its responsibility, but rather out of conscientious effort to frame good legislation that will prove workable. The administrators of the government are for the most part responsible to the Executive, and as a result the Executive’s function in proposing and drawing new legislation has been tremendously enlarged.
With this growing emphasis upon the day-to-day application of laws, the policy-making function of government is drifting away from the point at which the laws are passed.
Basically, the present weakness of Congress lies in its failure to meet this problem. To check on an administrative agency’s appropriation after it is spent is a crude discipline at best — a negative approach, capable of crippling an agency and its offending program, but incapable of putting something positive and constructive in its place.
The special investigative committee technique, currently exemplified by the Truman Committee of the Senate, is one significant advance in the direction of such a relationship between the Legislative and Executive branches. Its success in exposing administrative errors already committed and preventing others, through constructive recommendations embodied in its periodic reports, together with the ever present possibility of exposure and censure, has been spectacular.
The weaknesses of this technique in the long run are that it is not sufficiently continuous and that it is not applied to all phases of the government’s program.
If the control of governmental policy is to remain with the people’s elected representatives, as the framers of the Constitution intended it should, and not drift into the hands of a relatively irresponsible bureaucracy, Congress will have to streamline its organization. At the same time it will have to devise new instrumentalities and methods which will afford a positive, constructive liaison and high-policy relationship with the administrative arm of the national government.
THE committee organization has long been the backbone of the lawmaking machinery; therefore streamlining efforts should begin with drastic reorganization of the committee structure. There has never been any rhyme or reason governing the establishment and growth of the present committee setup in either house of Congress. Many committees were originally established to attend to specific problems of a particular period and have later been made standing committees, sometimes active, sometimes not.
Until comparatively recently, Congress provided its members with clerical assistance only when they were chairmen of committees. This complicated the committee organization because it encouraged the continuation of a number of useless committees solely for the purpose of providing necessary office staff for their chairmen.
At the present time there are thirty-three standing committees of the Senate and ten special committees. The House has forty-five standing committees and seven special committees. As a result of the large number of committees in the Senate, more than half the Senators serve on six or more committees. One Senator is serving on ten different committees.
This diffusion of energy and responsibility among a large number of groups, many with overlapping jurisdiction, is not conducive to the formulation of coherent and continuous legislative policy. Neither is it conducive to developing a well-recognized and continuing relationship with Executive agencies administering the laws.
The confusion is evident in the efforts that have been made to keep a watchful eye on the Executive departments and agencies directing the war effort. While the special Truman Committee has taken the leadership with a sustained and energetic review of many phases of the war program, the committees on Military Affairs, Naval Affairs, Agriculture, Appropriations, and various special committees have likewise been delving into various aspects of the war program. The renegotiation provisions of the law regarding war contracts, for instance, originated in the Senate Appropriations Committee but later were revised and amended by the Senate Finance Committee in connection with the tax bill.
The Congress cannot expect to cope with the complex problems of today unless the number of committees is drastically reduced and unless their jurisdiction is so defined that they can deal continuously wdth homogeneous segments of national policy corresponding roughly, at least, to the main outlines of administrative divisions in the Executive branch.
Taking the Senate for example, it would be possible to reduce the number of committees to ten or twelve in the interest of greater efficiency.
One Committee on Armed Forces could better serve in guiding the Senate’s actions in the sphere of war and national defense than can the divided counsel of the two present committees, the one on Military Affairs and the one on Naval Affairs. The day when the Army and Navy could safely be considered as independent and not necessarily coördinate arms of the military service has long since passed. Moreover, the unified approach of a single committee would be more likely to give air power the consideration and standing it deserves than do the present committees tied up traditionally with the Army and Navy. This committee should also take over the jurisdiction of the Pensions Committee and the veterans’ affairs jurisdiction now exercised by the Finance Committee.
In the field of business and the regulation of commerce, one committee could do a much more intelligent job than is possible under the present division of responsibility and jurisdiction among such committees as those on Interstate Commerce, Commerce, Manufactures, and Patents.
A Committee on the Interior, Natural Resources, and Public Works could combine the limited jurisdictions of a host of present committees such as those on Post Offices and Post Roads, Public Lands and Surveys, Indian Affairs, Irrigation and Reclamation, Mines and Mining, Territories and Insular Affairs, Interoceanic Canals, and Public Buildings and Grounds.
A Committee on Labor and Public Welfare could well take over the present jurisdiction of the Committee on Education and Labor, the Committee on Immigration, and the subject of social security now under the Finance Committee.
The Finance Committee and the Banking and Currency Committeee should be merged. It is recognized that the fundamental problem of the business cycle, inflation and deflation, is closely related to tax policy and monetary and credit policies. At present the Finance Committee is charged with responsibility for the one, and the Banking and Currency Committee for the other.
Such committees as those on Audit and Control of the Contingent Expenses of the Senate, Printing, Enrolled Bills, Privileges and Elections, and the Library could very properly be combined with the present Rules Committee, which has the responsibility already for much of the administrative business of the Senate.
The committees on Foreign Affairs, the Judiciary, and Agriculture already have clear and unchallenged jurisdiction over their respective spheres and should retain it.
The Claims Committee should be abolished. Congress should set up an organization to hear and dispose of all claims against the government, thus relieving the members of the burdensome task of investigating petty claims and of invoking the cumbersome procedure of passing private bills through the House and Senate.
Congress should pass a model city government statute for the District of Columbia and quit doing a poor and time-consuming job as its common council.
In the vital field of appropriations Congress has already recognized the necessity of bringing all appropriations before a general Appropriations Committee with an overall familiarity with the entire national budget.
In 1899 the Senate Appropriations Committee was given jurisdiction over some of the appropriation bills, but others of great importance were considered by the committee that had jurisdiction over the enabling legislation authorizing it. Thus, for example, appropriations for rivers and harbors were passed on by the Commerce Committee.
In 1922, when the Appropriations Committee was given jurisdiction over all appropriations bills, the logic of securing the assistance of members of the committees under whose jurisdiction the various activities fell was recognized by providing that three members of the Commerce Committee, to pursue the illustration, would sit ex officio with the Appropriations subcommittee designated to consider the appropriation for rivers and harbors and one member of the Commerce Committee would serve on the conference committee representing the Senate.
A Committee on Expenditures in Executive Departments should be brought to life to perform the functions now being discharged by a special joint committee.
SIMPLIFICATION of the committee structure would afford a greater opportunity for each individual Senator or Congressman to concentrate his energies on one or, at the most, two committees. He would become more expert in his chosen field, and the service and effectiveness of the committees would improve accordingly.
Reduction in the number of committees should be accompanied by a drastic reduction from their present size.
Reorganization would also pave the way for more collaboration between the two houses of Congress through the instrumentality of joint committees, such as the present Joint Committee on Internal Revenue Taxation. This committee, with its staff of experts, has proved of great assistance to both the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee in the highly technical, detailed, and intricate task of formulating tax legislation.
The question of adequate and expert staff is of vital importance. Undoubtedly one of the great contributing factors to the shift of influence and power from the Legislative to the Executive branch in recent years is the fact that Congress has been generous in providing expert and technical personnel for the Executive agencies but niggardly in providing such personnel for itself.
One of the traditional powers of Congress over the Executive is supposedly control over the purse strings. Obviously that control cannot be exercised intelligently unless Congress has the facilities and the expert staff to appraise and evaluate appropriations just as the Budget Bureau does. Yet the annual appropriation for the staff of the Bureau of the Budget is thirteen times as large as the appropriations for the staff of the Senate and House committees on appropriations combined.
In the next few months Congress will be facing such far-reaching and intricate problems as renewal of reciprocal trade agreements and Lend-Lease legislation, price control, and the overall manpower program for military, agricultural, and industrial service. Practically all the committees before which these great problems will come for legislative determination of one kind or another will have the usual staffs of five or six employees. In most cases the top salary paid to any member of those committee staffs will be $3900. Positions of similar responsibility in the Executive agencies would afford salaries almost double that amount.
The Congress should establish at once joint committee staffs made up of competent and well-paid personnel for each of the major streamlined committees as outlined. Thus an efficient and wellinformed group of independent experts would be available to the various major committees of the House and Senate. With this vital aid supplemented by the excellent Legislative Counsel’s staffs now serving the respective bodies in drafting legislation, with members able to devote their time to only one or two committees, Congress would be in a position to render the people more efficient and constructive service and to re-establish a better balance of power with the Executive branch.
Each individual Senator and Congressman is in the same position as the Congress as a whole, in so far as staff is concerned. Their responsibilities have multiplied over and over again in recent years. As the government has stepped into the individual lives of each and every one of their constituents, the demand for assistance in all sorts of problems has descended upon them in an increasing torrent.
Yet when the proposal was made two years ago that each Senator should be allowed the services of an executive assistant with a salary of $4500 per year, it was defeated. The administrative assistant in countless district offices of OPA or any other Federal agency gets that salary, but a United States Senator representing a constituency of millions of people is denied this necessary assistance simply because of the unwillingness of Congress to spend the money that is necessary to equip itself to do its job.
REORGANIZATION of committee structure, concentration of members’ time on fewer committees and subjects, and development of adequate staffs, although vitally important, will not alone serve to meet the major problem presented by the necessity, in war and in peace, for the delegation of vast legislative powers to the Executive arm of the government. Despite all protestations to the contrary, by the “outs” seeking to be made the “ins,” the complexity of our economic life now and after the war will force the Congress to continue the process of delegation of power in order that government may function with a reasonable amount of satisfaction to the people. To meet this necessity and at the same time to preserve democracy will test the genius of the American people for self-government as never before. In the compass of this article there is only space to suggest methods by which the Legislative branch of the government can discharge its full responsibilities without undue interference with the Executive’s power.
Congress could establish a joint Legislative and Executive council made up of a small number of members of the House and Senate selected by ballot or by the majority and minority in both Houses, to confer regularly with the President and the heads of departments and agencies. The council should only consider the broad questions of policy and not those related to purely administrative functions. Thus the Congress, through representation and with the coöperation of the President, would be in a position to make certain that the delegation of its power in various fields of governmental action was being exercised as the Congress intended. It would save the Executive branch of the government from many a mistake and relieve it from the justifiable charge of usurpation and abuse of power.
This device, like any other human institution, wall depend for its effectiveness upon coöperation between the Executive and Legislative branches of government. I have confidence that it holds out real hope of success in meeting one of our most pressing problems in the preservation of the American democratic structure.
Another means of holding the Executive to a stricter and current accountability in the exercise of the vast powers placed in his hands would be to require the attendance of Cabinet officers and heads of agencies for questioning before the House and Senate, respectively, at stated intervals. This idea was advocated by my friend the late Senator Bronson Cutting. It has great possibilities in the solution of our present problem of preserving the balance of power and at the same time enabling government to function efficiently and adequately.
Many people are looking to their representatives to reassert the power and independence of the Legislative branch.
If this resurgence is to express itself in a positive, constructive way, rather than in a dog-in-themanger attitude toward the President, Congress will have to overcome its inferiority complex, provide a staff with the best experts money can hire, reorganize its outmoded committee system, and seriously set itself to the job not only of passing better laws but of working with the Executive departments constantly to see they are made to produce the results intended.
Congress has an opportunity now to show what it can do. If it fails to be constructive, there is no telling how long an impatient people will support representative government in America.