Representative Michael Synar, of Oklahoma, swears that this actually happened: He was addressing a Cub Scout pack in Grove, Oklahoma, not far from his home town of Muskogee. Synar asked the young boys if they could tell him the difference between the Cub Scouts and the United States Congress. One boy raised his hand and said, “We have adult supervision.”
Is anyone in charge on Capitol Hill? October’s two-week long melodrama over shutting down the government was not an isolated instance. Recently Congress voted for a $749 billion package of tax cuts, and only a few months later was locked in debate over a constitutional amendment for a balanced budget. The House voted in favor of Ronald Reagan’s plan to almost double the number of nuclear warheads in the U.S. arsenal, and not long after voted in favor of the nuclear freeze. Only once in the past six years has Congress finished the budget appropriating before the beginning of the fiscal year; many spending bills have not been completed until months after the spending they supposedly control has begun. Long periods of legislative stalling are followed by spasms in which bills are passed with wild abandon, and these often contain “unprinted amendments” whose contents congressmen have never had an opportunity to read. Many provisions of “tax leasing” became law that way, as, in 1981, did the phone number of a woman named Rita. Rita’s number had been scribbled in the margin of the only copy of an amendment being voted on, and the following day it was duly transcribed into the printed copy of the bill.
“The system is a mess, and what’s amazing is how many members of Congress are fully aware that the system is a mess,” says Alan Dixon, a senator from Illinois. Congress has, of course, seemed out of control at many points in the past. During the late 1930s, as signs of war grew, Congress was synonymous with irresponsibility; during the McCarthy era, with cowardice. In 1959 it ground to a halt over the minor issue of Dwight Eisenhower’s nomination of Lewis Strauss as secretary of Commerce and the even less important issue of an Air Force Reserve honorary promotion for the actor Jimmy Stewart. Through the 1960s it huffed and puffed about the Vietnam War, but never failed to approve funds for the fighting. In 1972, after hours of acrimonious debate, it voted to raise the federal debt ceiling for a single day. A degree of built-in vacillation as part of the Founding Fathers’ plan for the legislature. But have recent changes in the structure both of U.S. politics and of Congress as an institution pushed Congress across the fine line separating creative friction from chaos?
“Congress today is a totally different institution from what it was when I arrived, in 1961,” says Morris Udall, of Arizona, one of the House’s senior members. “The magnitude of change is no illusion.” The end of the seniority system; the arabesque budget “process” and other time-consuming new additions like the War Powers Act; the transformation from party loyalty to political-action-committee (PAC) loyalty; the increased emphasis on media campaigning; the vogue of running against Washington and yet being a member of the Washington establishment; the development of ideological anti-campaigns; a dramatic increase in congressional-subcommittee power and staff size, and a parallel increase in the scope and intensity of lobbying—all are creations of the past fifteen years. Some have served to make the nation’s legislature more democratic and to improve its contact with the public. Others have made congressmen more frantic and timorous. But every change has in some respect caused Congress to become more difficult to run. Right now there isn’t anyone in charge, and there may never be again.
Everywhere a Mr. Chairman
Hardly anyone laments the dismantling of the seniority rules—not even people like Udall, who would benefit if the old system still existed. From roughly the turn of the century until 1975 rank was based solely on how many years a member had been in Congress The chairman of a committee could create or disband subcommittees, choose the subcommittee chairmen (often choosing himself), dictate when the subcommittees held hearings and whether bills were “referred” to them, hire the committee staff, and exert total control over when the committee itself would hold hearings or report bills to the floor. All these powers rested exclusively with twenty to twenty-five men in each chamber; others in Congress could wield power only by outvoting the senior members on the floor, and then only when the senior members permitted such votes to occur.
Seniority had long been considered unassailable, for the reason that senior members would use their powers to block any reform. But by the late 1960s the resistance of the southern committee chairmen to the obvious need for civil-rights reform had eroded seniority to the point at which challenges became possible. Every two years, as a new Congress was convened and new internal rules were passed, younger members would press for further concessions. “In 1971 we managed to pass a resolution saying that seniority would not be the sole criterion for chairmanship and that there ought to be a vote. Then in 1975 we won.”
It was a pivotal year for the structure of Congress. Ninety-two new representatives, mostly Democrats—the “Class of ’74”—had been elected to the House in the wake of Watergate. Government institutions in general were in a state of low regard. Conservative southerners had been shamed by how long they had stood by Richard Nixon; and two powerful old-school committee chairmen, Wilbur Mills, of the Ways and Means Committee, and Wayne Hays, of the House Administration Committee, were going off the deep end. The Class of ’74 provided the extra margin of votes needed to end seniority in the House. Three entrenched chairmen—Wright Patman, of the Banking Committee, F. Edward Hebert, of Armed Services, and W. R. Poage, of Agriculture—were overthrown. More significant in the long run, a “subcommittee bill of rights” was passed. Essentially, subcommittees won the right to hold hearings on any subject at any time. Committee members would be able to “bid” for subcommittee chairmanships; full committee chairmen could no longer control these slots or hold more than one subcommittee chairmanship themselves. Each subcommittee chairman would get funds for at least one staff aide who would work for him personally, not for the committee. The total number of subcommittees would be expanded. A similar though more genteel sequence of change took place in the Senate.
The autocracy of the chair broken, Congress was transformed from an institution in which power was closely held by a few to an institution in which almost everyone had just enough strength to toss a monkey wrench. In 1964 there were forty-seven meaningful chairmanships available in the House and Senate. Between the dispersion of subcommittee posts and the increase in the total number of committees and subcommittees, 326 Mr. Chairman positions were available in 1984. Allowing for those who hold more than one chairmanship, 202 of Congress’s 535 members—38 percent—are now in charge of something.
More than any other factor, the deregulation of subcommittees has increased Congress’s workload and decreased its cohesion. In 1970, before the change, congressional committees held an average of twenty-three meetings a day. By 1982 the figure was thirty-seven meetings a day, twelve committee and subcommittee assignments each. With the trend toward “government in the sunshine” the number of closed committee hearings has dropped substantially—from 35 percent of all hearings in 1960 to seven percent in 1975. This serves the public’s right to know but also increases the amount of time congressmen spend posturing for public consumption instead of saying what they think, which is practical only in closed hearings. The subcommittee bill of rights established “multiple referral,” under which several subcommittees could consider the same bill or topic. The result is increased redundancy, more speechifying, and almost unlimited potential for turf fights.
According to John Tower, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, “Our committee spends a large proportion of its time trying to fend off competition from other committees and monitoring what the other committees are doing.” In the Senate the Armed Services, Appropriations, Governmental Affairs, Budget, Foreign Relations, and Veterans’ Affairs committees all have an interest in military legislation; subcommittees of the same committee may also have overlapping jurisdictions, such as the Arms Control and European Affairs subcommittees of Foreign Relations. Multiple subcommittees each with multiple jurisdictions are a primary cause of the dizzy progression of non-events in Congress. Headlines like SENATE MOVES TO BAN IMPORTS and HOUSE HALTS FUNDS often refer to subcommittee actions that will be modified many times before they take effect or, more likely, vanish without a trace. Some sort of milestone was achieved last June when both the International Economic Policy Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the International Trade Subcommittee of the Senate Finance Committee held hearings covering the same topic—Japanese auto imports—on the same day, at the same time, with many of the same witnesses.
Driving the system is the unleashed desire of congressmen to be in command of something—anything. Culture shock for new congressmen arriving in Washington can be severe. Having just won a grueling electoral test and bearing the status of big wheels at home, in Washington they discover that they are among thousands of potentially important people competing for influence and attention. Young congressmen also find themselves assigned to cramped, dingy offices with Naugahyde furnishings and no majestic view of the Capitol dome. The yearning for a Washington badge of recognition and the additional perquisites that would make Capitol Hill life what they imagined it to be can set in almost immediately.
A chairmanship is particularly important because television is permitted in hearing rooms. Almost from the onset of television, congressmen have realized the promotional potential of the carefully scripted hearing: the McCarthy and Kefauver hearings of the 1950s, which were among the first “television events,” made their eponyms famous.
Fame may be an elusive goal, but publicity is not. The proliferation of networks and newscasts meshes perfectly with the proliferation of Capitol Hill hearings. Congress itself is difficult for television to cover, because no single person is in charge and few actions are final. A well-done hearing, in contrast, has a master of ceremonies, a story line, and an easily summarized conclusion when a witness commits a gaffe, announces a “policy shift,” or clashes angrily with committee members. Hearings, unlike floor action, also allow congressmen to introduce props—the masked witness being a perennial favorite, piles of money or gimmicks like chattering teeth being reliable avenues to television coverage.
Once created, a subcommittee takes on a life of its own, if for no other reason than that the staff must justify its existence. In 1970 the House Committee on the District of Columbia had fifteen staff members; today it has thirty. The Senate Rules Committee had thirteen staff members in 1970 and today has twenty-seven. The House Appropriations Committee has more than twice as many staff members as it had in1970, and the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee’s staff has risen from twenty-one to eighty-nine. Debra Knopman, a former staff aide to Senator Daniel Moynihan, says, “The staffs are so large everybody wants to have his say and leave his own little stamp. Pretty soon the weight of people wanting attention becomes greater than the force moving the legislation, and the whole thing grinds to a halt.”
Staff allegiance is to the subcommittee chairman rather than to the overall purpose of the legislature, and bickering with members of other staffs becomes a primary means of self-advancement. While the top jobs in congressional offices pay well—$46,000 to $56,000 a year—the average pay is only $25,000; between the low salaries and hectic working conditions, turnover in congressional offices runs at a rate of 40 percent a year. A staff of bright, inexperienced people will work harder and produce more good ideas per salary dollar spent than an older, trained staff, but it will also lack an institutional memory, demand more attention, and make more mischief, mostly in the form of turf fights.
The proliferation and redundancy of committees has produced a proliferation of redundant committees to study the problem. In the past decade the Senate has appointed three internal-reform study groups: the Stevenson Committee (named after the former Illinois senator Adlai Stevenson III), the Pearson-Ribicoff Study Group (run by retired senators James Pearson, of Kansas, and Abraham Ribicoff, of Connecticut), and a committee now meeting under the chairmanship of Senator Dan Quayle, of Indiana. Stevenson recommended a simplified system that would combine overlapping committees. Pearson and Ribicoff recommended that all subcommittees be abolished; that committees like the Small Business Committee and the select Committee on Aging, which exist mainly to mollify interest groups, be subsumed into larger committees; and that the pairs of committees most frequently at each other’s throats—the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, and the Budget and Appropriations committees—be merged.
None of the major Stevenson or Pearson-Ribicoff recommendations were enacted. The feudalistic system may prove in the long run more resilient than the seniority system, because now the number of congressmen with a stake in preventing change is much greater. Merging the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, for example, would eliminate one of the glamorous “A” committee chairmanships that are tickets to instant prominence, to say nothing of eliminating about ten subcommittee chairmanships. When Howard Baker, the retiring majority leader, appeared before the Quayle committee last July to present a summing up of his years of leading the Senate, only two senators were present to hear him. All the rest had schedule conflicts.
The Budget That Wouldn’t Die
The way Congress spends money was converted into a “process” with the passage, in 1974, of the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act. Its immediate purpose was to prevent Richard Nixon from “impounding,” or refusing to spend, money that Congress had appropriated. But the Budget Act also had a long-term goal: solving a structural defect in Congress’s spending machine.
Before 1974 the House and Senate each had three kinds of committees involved with the budget: authorizing, appropriating, and revenue. The authorizing committees, like Agriculture, Transportation, Energy, and Interior, are the most familiar; the “authorize” federal activity by writing legislation in their subject areas. But though they can start or end programs, they cannot approve expenditures—only the two appropriating committees can do that. Since the amount spent on a program usually determines that program’s effect on policy, the potential for overlapping and disputation is boundless. Neither authorizing nor appropriating committees, meanwhile, have the power to raise the money that backs up the checks—only the Finance Committee, in the senate, and the Ways and Means Committee, in the House, do. Because of this separation it became all too easy for authorizing and appropriating committees to ignore the fiscal consequences of their actions—getting the money was somebody’s else’s job—and for the revenue committees, in turn, to demand that the other fellow crack down on spending.
During the 1950s and 1960s, when deficits were relatively stable, this state of affairs was tolerable. According to Robert Giaimo, who served in the House from 1958 to 1980 and was the Budget Committee chairman in the late 1970s, “No one, including myself, in Congress in the 1960s ever asked what anything would cost. All we thought about was, Does this sound like a good program? Can we get it through?”
The budget process was intended to bring together the questions of how much to spend, how to spend it, and where the funds would come from with a single resolution that would both guide Congress and impose a series of spending ceilings to control the deficit. Congress would have, say, a certain ceiling for transportation, and if it wanted to add funds to subway construction, it would have to remove a like amount from highways.
Ideally this would have been accomplished through some merging of the authorizing, appropriating, and revenue committees. But merger would have required that at least two powerful chairmen, plus many subcommittee chairmen, surrender their posts. So an entirely new procedural tier, the budget committees, complete with two important new chairmanships, was set on top. The result is what Howard Baker calls “a three-layer cake.” In theory, on receiving the President’s budget requests, in early winter, the budget committees quickly produce a nonbinding first resolution to set general ceilings. Then the authorizing committees write policy-setting legislation within those ceilings, and the appropriating committees—after learning of the authorizing committees’ policy objectives—award the money. Near the end of this cycle the budget committees produce a second resolution to reconcile the inevitable differences between what the budget ceilings allow and what the committees are actually spending. This resolution is binding, and after it is passed, in theory the remaining pieces fall smoothly into place.
In practice the budget process isn’t working anything like that. Budget resolutions have become the subjects of such contention that this year the first resolution, due on May 15, wasn’t passed until October 1—even though it was nonbinding. Appropriating and authorizing committees work concurrently and nearly year-round, the appropriating committees choosing dollar amounts before, from the standpoint of policy, they know how the money will be used. The Budget Act breaks down spending into functional categories different from those employed by the committee structure, so when a budget resolution is being debated, wrestling goes on over which portion of which ceiling should apply to which committee, a procedure known as “crosswalk.” Thus the process leads to a continuous frenzy of activity but few decisions that count.
In order to prepare the fiscal 1984 defense budget, the Senate Appropriations Committee held seventeen days of hearings, producing about 5,300 pages of testimony. The Senate Armed Services Committee held twenty-seven days of hearings on the defense budget and called 192 witnesses, many of whom also appeared before the Appropriations Committee to make the same statements. The Senate Budget Committee held hearings on the subject as well, producing two resolutions that had to be debated and voted on by the full Senate.
Meanwhile, in the House, the Armed Services, Appropriations, and Budget committees were duplicating this work, and the full chamber was voting on a different budget resolution. And none of it was final.
When the defense bill itself came to the Senate floor, it sparked weeks of debate; the (different) House bill caused a similar swirl on the floor. Even after that the defense budget wasn’t finished. A House-Senate conference committee had to be created to resolve the discrepancies between the two versions, and then the conference-committee bill had to be debated and voted on by both chambers. Spending levels for the Defense Department weren’t finally set until mid-November of 1983, seven weeks after the fiscal year had begun.
Last summer Howard Baker was negotiating simultaneously with various factions on the defense authorization bill and the defense appropriations bill and with a House-Senate conference committee deadlocked on the defense sections of the budget resolution. In other words, he was trying to arrive at three different versions of the same number—none of which would be final. “This is crazy,” Baker told the Quayle committee, in a plaintive tone. “It makes absolutely no sense.”
The endless budget deliberations have also been a driving force behind a dramatic increase in the number of recorded votes on the floor. In 1960 the House staged 180 roll-call votes, or 0.7 votes per working day. In 1970 there were 443 votes, or 1.3 per working day, and in 1980 there were 1,276 votes—3.9 each day. (In the Senate roll calls have increased from 1.5 a day in 1960 to 3 a day in 1980.)
The sheer logistics of staging four roll-call votes a day are imposing, because congressmen are rarely on the chamber floor, or even in the Capitol. When roll-call votes are signaled, congressmen must drop what they are doing (usually attending committee meetings at one of the congressional office buildings several hundred yards from the Capitol), race to the floor, vote, and race back. It is considered political suicide to miss roll-call votes, even when the subjects are trivial (in recent years the House voted 305 to 66 to establish Mother-in-Law Day and 388 to 11 to permit the International Communication Agency to distribute a slide show called Montana: The People Speak) or when the votes are likely to be overturned later. Since low attendance has an instant negative connotation, one of the easiest ways for a challenger to attack an incumbent congressman is to hammer at a “bad attendance record” on floor votes—a tactic that avoids the issue of whether the congressman might have made more meaningful use of his time.
Because of the regularity with which redundant floor votes occur, Congress “never finishes anything, never arrives at a decision,” according to Senator Ted Stevens, of Alaska. “Always they are just preliminary decisions that will be addressed again later anyway. It’s totally confusing to the public, and even to ourselves.” By my count there have been thirty-six “test votes” in the House and Senate on the MX missile since Reagan took office, most of them necessitated by some whorl of the budget process. These test votes have been accompanied by tension, packed press galleries, ringing debate—all the drama of decision, but no decision. On a Tuesday in December of 1982 the House worked late into the night debating whether to cut nearly $1 billion from MX funding. The vote was headline news nationwide and was played as HOUSE KILLS MX. Then, on Wednesday—the following day—the House voted to retain $2.5 billion for MX research and development.
The MX is far from unique as a source of marathon voting. In 1981 the Senate staged twenty-five roll-call votes on the budget-reconciliation bill (an interim step) and fifty-five on the tax-cut bill. In 1983 there were eight Senate roll-call votes on what language to use in condemning the Soviet destruction of Korean Air Lines flight 007. During three months in 1983 the House took twenty-seven recorded votes on the nuclear freeze, including eleven in one week.
Often in recent years the United States has technically not had a budget at all but rather has operated under a “continuing resolution” that keeps the money flowing but avoids an official legislative confrontation over the deficit. Continuing resolutions are popular, in part because they are one of the mechanisms that allow congressmen to seem to be voting for both sides at once; they can vote No on the budget itself (“I’m opposed to these deficits”) and vote Yes for individual programs on the continuing resolution (“I brought increased federal spending to this district”). Similarly, the frequent votes to raise the federal debt ceiling are technically “temporary” legislation, so that congressmen can claim that each vote was merely for an emergency stopgap, not an endorsement of the debt itself. A temporary vote results in the need to have another showdown over the same subject a short time later, even though it was known all along that the “temporary” increase would not provide enough time to make substantial reforms in spending practices. “We are forever staying up all night to extend the debt one month, doing nothing for a month and then staying up all night again,” says a highly placed officer of the House.
In recent years there also has been an increase in the use of supplemental appropriations bills, which are in effect end runs around the stagnated budget process. A case study in how Congress now works is this year’s summer-jobs supplemental. In March of 1984 the House overwhelmingly passed a bill providing $60 million in emergency aid for African drought victims. The bill was sent to the Senate, where immediate passage was expected. Realizing this, Senator Dixon—who had been looking for means to enact a $100 million increase in federal summer-jobs funding for high-unemployment states like his, Illinois—decided to attach his proposal as an unrelated amendment, or “rider,” to the famine-relief bill. (In the House, amendments must be germane; there is a similar rule in the Senate, but it is rarely enforced, meaning that in effect any rider can be attached to any piece of legislation.) In early April, Dixon’s jobs amendment was added to the relief bill without opposition.
All aboard! The train was about to leave the station. A noncontroversial philanthropic bill—who could be against food for drought victims and summer jobs for youth?—was ideal as a carrier of baggage. Within ten days the Senate had attached no fewer than thirty-five more riders to the bill. Among them were $14 million for the Cumberland Gap Bypass Tunnel; $5 billion for the Commodity Credit Corporation; $845 million for two child-nutrition programs; $2.3 billion for the Rural Housing Insurance Fund; $850,000 for recreation in Nassau Country, New York; $70 million for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, providing “that none of the funds appropriated under this paragraph shall be used to pay for receptions, parties, and similar forms of entertainment”; $1 million for abandoned-mine reclamation grants for Montana; $50 million for crop insurance; $25 million for United States Customs Service airplanes; $62 million for military aid to El Salvador; $21 million for aid to the contras in Nicaragua; extra money for the Senate Stationery Revolving Fund; and a “sense of the Senate” section praising the Navy’s Seabee construction teams as “elite units of unprecedented mobility and versatility.”
Soon the House made known that it wanted the Senate to drop all the riders, including the summer-jobs provision; Jamie Whitten, of Mississippi, the House Appropriations Committee chairman, said that the Senate had “over-stepped its prerogatives”—that is, gone wild. Then the mining of Nicaraguan harbors by contra forces was revealed and became a media event. Congressmen began to compete to see who could express the most outrage, even though Congress had supplied the funds with which the mining was carried out. Talk increased of using certain provisions of the War Powers Act, which would set in motion another new “process.” Passed in 1973, the act was catalyzed by Nixon’s “secret” bombing of Cambodia and invasion of Laos, but its origins go back to President Truman’s decision to commit U.S. troops to Korea without trumped-up evidence to trick Congress into passing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The War Powers Act creates a sequence of deadlines that so far have served mainly to generate meetings, testimony, and the appearance of action; its serious provisions, involving the withdrawal of troops, have never been acted upon.
During the harbor-mining flap, the House held ten hours of floor debate on an anti-mining resolution, not because there was any doubt about the outcome—the resolution won 281 to 111—but because so many members wanted a chance to make a speech with the cameras rolling. The Senate also held a long-winded debate before voting 84 to 12 to condemn the wining. The votes were headline news—even though neither was a decision but merely a nonbinding expression of concern. This “done,” Congress adjourned for the Easter holiday.
By mid-May the House had passed a new version of the famine bill, removing some of the Senate riders. A conference committee was called to resolve the differences, especially over the now controversial aid to El Salvador and the contras. In early May, José Napoleón Duarte was elected president of El Salvador. He met with House leaders and persuaded them of his sincerity, and House objections to the $62 million in extra aid for his country were dropped. But the $21 million for the contras remained in dispute. White House lobbyists said that they would not support the bill unless aid to the contras was included. Stalemate was reached. Famine relief and the summer-jobs measure were now being held up by a political non sequitur.
In mid-June, Dixon appeared before the Senate’s Democratic caucus with a spending breakdown showing that although the jobs measure was intended mainly for industrial states, almost every state—forty-four of fifty—would get some share of the money. This seemed to increase senatorial enthusiasm. Then, at a televised press conference, President Reagan was asked whether he felt that employment for the poor should depend on aid to the contras. Reagan seemed only dimly aware of what was at issue, but the question had been phrased in such a way that he came off sounding hard-hearted. A spate of bad publicity resulted, including editorials in most of the nation’s papers.
In late June there was another round of floor debate in the Senate. Aid to the contras was dropped form the bill, as were a few of the other riders. When finally approved, the supplemental, which had started with a single provision worth $60 million, contained twenty-two provisions worth $1.1 billion. Reagan signed it on July 2—with the intended summer-jobs recipients already well out of school, and an unknown number of African drought victims, if anyone still remembered them, added to the death toll.
When seniority was in flower, the personal prospects of most congressmen were limited. There was nothing a congressman might do to speed his ascendancy to the chairmanship of a committee. He could only wait. If he wished to be able to deliver appropriations for his district or constituency, his best chance lay in cultivating the good will of a few older chairmen and leaders—the speaker, the majority and minority leaders and their assistants, and the party caucuses, which made and revised committee assignments.
The main way to win the favor of this small group was to keep quiet. Make no special demands, vote as directed, and never challenge a leadership position or a senior chairman’s bill on the floor. Challenging the power structure might work on occasion—but the senior members were around for the long haul, and they had excellent memories for those who crossed them. Stepping out of line might also cause a congressman to lose the financial support of his party, and that might cost him his job.
As the tenor of American politics changed—and as, through Watergate, internal Washington came to be associated with disgrace rather than dignity—Congress changed. “Today each senator is his own mountain peak, with his own staff, his own source of financing, his own pet issues, and his own agenda,” says Nelson W. Polsby, the author of several standard texts on Congress.
With the seniority system gone, the rewards of patience are fewer—there’s no guarantee that playing by the rules will lead to a prominent position. The prominent positions themselves have been devalued, and the penalties for being a glory-seeker have been all but eliminated.
At the same time, with the expansion of television coverage, playing to the crowd has become much more rewarding than playing to the blub. In 1964, 1,649 journalists were accredited to cover Congress. Today 3,748 are: seven journalists for each congressman. By far the largest increase has been in the number of radio and television journalists. While Congress itself is difficult for the networks to cover, individual congressmen make ideal subjects for television. They hold important positions; they speak in catchy phrases that clip into twenty-second bites; they eagerly seek exposure, and thus are willing to cooperate with television’s requirements; and they have opinions on nearly everything. Congressmen, in turn—particularly senators, because of their extra prestige—have found that they can use television to cultivate national followings that will supply them with fame, donations, and a power base, should they run for President. Self-promotion has always been a factor in Capitol Hill affairs, but the advent of television has made it convenient to a degree never before possible.
The shift in campaign financing toward direct mail and PACs has an obverse effect that is often overlooked: the shift away from political-party structures as a source of funds. In 1982 candidates for the House received, on average, only six percent of their funds from Democratic or Republican party organizations. Almost all their money came from PACs and from individuals, most of whom were PAC-affiliated or solicited by direct mail. Oil-company PACs alone gave more money to Democratic candidates in 1982 than did the Democratic National Committee. Party discipline has always been weak in U.S. politics; there is nothing in the United States that rivals the bitterness and intensity of Western European party feuds, for example. The two restraints that congressional leaders have traditionally used on members are the promise of campaign funds and the threat of seniority freeze-out: with the former now more readily available outside Congress and the latter lacking credibility, mountain peaks are heaving up in every direction.
This change affects the substance of government as well as the style of Congress. Subcommittee hearings held primarily to showcase the chairman waste not only the subcommittee members’ time: someone must testify at those hearings. Secretary of State George Shultz was called to Congress for formal testimony twenty-five times in 1983, or every other week; all told, high State Department officials made nearly 400 appearances. Senator Robert Kasten, of Wisconsin, says that officials appearing before redundant committees not only discuss the same topics but use the same words. “Often I’ll say to myself, where have I heard that before? and realize that it’s the exact same speech that was read by the same man, the week before, at another hearing. If you miss part of his speech, just go to the next hearing, because he’ll be giving it again.”
Constantly going up the Hill to testify—and constantly having to defend budget requests, which in the multi-tier system are subject to some kind of challenge somewhere almost daily—affects the efficiency of executive agencies. Administration officials come to view a good day of committee testimony as representing the successful fulfillment of their duties. This is an essential element of Washington make-believe. In turn, congressmen often view an official’s relations with Congress as in itself the measure of success (it was Anne Gorsuch Burford’s refusal to release documents to Congress, not her policies at the Environmental Protection Agency, that caused her downfall). And reporters come to view accessibility to the press as the chief test of an official’s worth. The question of what government is actually doing is often lost in the shuffle.
Prisoners of Trivia
Trivia, even to the most dedicated congressman, has its pull. When there are a thousand small things that demand attention—hearings, floor votes, hands to shake, parties to attend, and speeches to deliver—the mind tends to focus on them, and larger purposes are forgotten.
The development in the 1970s of computerized direct mail, for example, may have given congressmen a powerful new tool with which to raise money, but it also gave interest groups a powerful new tool with which to bury Congress in trivia. In 1972 members of the House received 14.6 million pieces of mail; last year, the figure was 161 million, and this year mail is running at a rate of 200 million pieces. That comes to 459,770 pieces of mail for each representative. On a single day this fall Tip O’Neill, the speaker of the House, received five million pieces. One staff aide, who worked for Hubert Humphrey in the 1960s and now works for one of the Senate’s lesser-known members, recalls, “During the height of the debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Humphrey got 3,000 letters. This was considered astonishing. Now we can get 3,000 letters a day even when there’s nothing going on.”
Most of the letters are sparked by mass-mailing campaigns made possible by computers and targeted address lists: it is not unusual for a congressman’s office to receive in one day fifty handwritten letters all of which have exactly the same wording. But the fact that few of the letters are spontaneous does not diminish their importance to congressmen; each letter represents both the concerns of a citizen and a lost vote should the congressman fail to reply. Failing to answer a letter—even with a form letter—is riskier than missing a roll-call vote, since the letter constitutes the most direct contact the average voter will ever have with a political leader.
“People write to us to complain about the expansion in congressional staff, then get mad if someone isn’t standing by to answer their letter,” says Janet St. Amand, the legislative direct for Representative Thomas Carper, of Delaware. Form-letter computers that spew out paragraphs in response to key words have been installed in congressional offices, and the offices of senators from large states now more closely resemble mail-order outlets than legislative enclaves. Senator Dale Bumpers, of Arkansas, was embarrassed a few years ago when it was revealed that his computer contained a form letter designated “late apology to friend” that began, “It was good to hear from you, and I hope you’ll accept my apologies for my delay in getting back to you. I had put your letter aside to answer personally. …” Capitol Hill interns and lower-level staffers now find that their lives consist almost entirely of opening letters, flattening the contents, and stuffing envelopes with the responses.
Robert Rota, the postmaster of the House, says he sees no end in sight for the increase in congressional mail: “The stamp will always be the cheapest form of lobbying, and as long as the enthusiasm for lobbying keeps building, so will the volume of mail.”
One new distraction that members of Congress dare not complain about publicly, but nonetheless feel, is the physical presence of constituents in Washington. The increase in travel by average Americans is among those measures of society’s wealth that do not fit nearly into the consumer price index but are unmistakable. In 1970, 2.8 million people visited the Capitol grounds; the figure continued to build even through the recent recession, and in 1983 it hit five million. Crowds are such that it is now sometimes difficult, even during the week, to walk through the Capitol Rotunda; in the summer, tourists even abound in the unmarked (purposely, to discourage the curious) underground passageways that link the functional parts of the Capitol.
When the Philip Hart senate Office Building was completed, two years ago, there was a minor revolt among senators who were ordered to move in, in part because the Hart Building lacks the traditional unmarked doors that allow senators to slip in and out of their private offices unnoticed.
The Campaign That Never Ends
Along with the shift from seeking success within Congress as an institution to seeking national attention and interest-group financial backing went a shift in corporate campaign contributions in the 1970s—away from incumbents and toward challengers.
The great bulk of business contributions had always gone to sitting congressmen, even liberal Democrats, on the “bird in the hand” theory. During the 1970s, as seniority broke down, conservative chairmen lost their ability to control liberal younger members, who at time seemed out of touch with the reasonable requirements of business. Concurrently, oil companies were finding both that they had huge sums of money at their disposal and that they were under political attack, by means of the windfall-profits tax and other measures. Having the money to spend and the desire to spend it, oil companies broke tradition and began to funnel money to challengers; they hoped either to defeat the incumbents or to make them so nervous that they would fear their own shadows. Other business groups joined in. By the time a few “safe seat” senior members who had always played by the rules lost re-election bids, a new type of electoral anxiety was created.
As it happened, the attack by business on incumbents had less effect than anticipated: congressional “mortality rates” are about the same today as they were in the 1950s, and as the anti-business mood of Congress has dissipated, and as the anti-business mood of Congress has dissipated, 1984 business contributions favored incumbents by a wide-margin. Another force has arisen to feed the anxiety: an explosion in single-interest groups and independent negative-campaign organizations like the National Conservative Political Action Committee which specialize in attack. NCPAC may not be the juggernaut it once appeared. Its track record of defeating incumbents is modest, and in several races NCPAC’s efforts have backfired. But the proliferation of groups like it, armed with millions of dollars, has kept the re-election anxiety level on the high plane to which business first raised it. In the 1982 congressional elections the largest single pool of money was the $64.3 million spent by “nonconnected” ideological PACs. Total corporate PAC spending, in contrast, was $43.3 million.
Most of the money spent by ideological PACs is used to attack someone or something, rather than to propose constructive solutions. Negative views sit well with the public in the wake of two Presidents in a row—Carter and Reagan—who have campaigned “against Washington.” “Americans are by nature skeptical of authority, and inclined to believe the worst about government,” Representative Willis Gradison, of Ohio, says. “This makes an anti-Washington or anti-Congress campaign the easiest type of campaign to sell to voters.” It also profoundly affects the tone of politics, making congressmen feel that they must endlessly justify themselves by endlessly campaigning: merely being in Washington renders them guilt until shown innocent.
This campaign trend and the growth of television interact with each other in a diabolical way. “Today, if you can’t sell an issue in twenty seconds, you can’t use it,” Representative Synar says. “It only takes twenty seconds to say ‘Your congressman is against prayer.’ It takes me five minutes to explain why that’s wrong. But television won’t give me five minutes. Television demands that I boil everything down to a single sentence.” Synar adds that the only way he can reply to a negative charge within twenty seconds is with another negative, knocking the ball back into his opponent’s court. This need to be negative suits perfectly the internal imperatives of television which congressmen are increasingly aware of and anxious to satisfy. Television producers assume that they are struggling to grab viewers’ attention every second the set is on: most viewers are eating, reading, talking, or otherwise distracted. Emotional facial expressions and confrontations tend to make them look up from dinner, and thus are prized.
Confrontations also have human story lines that can be grasped by someone who just walked into the room. Even the viewer who wants to be well informed about public policy, if he walsks in when a complicated discussion is in progress, may assume that he has already missed too much and change channels, whereas the viewer walking in during an argument can immediately pick up on what’s happening. Whether Gary Hart’s “new ideas” were good or bad, television reporters tended to skip over them during his presidential-nomination campaign, because they were complicated and took too long to explain. The fact that Hart had changed his name and signature, however, could be communicated in a single sentence, and called forth emotional reactions that made for lively television. During the much-publicized Roger Mudd interview, Mudd addressed seventeen questions and comments to Hart. Only one of the seventeen concerned an issue. All the rest were about style or were confrontational questions designed to provoke emotional responses. “Why do you imitate John Kennedy so much?” would embarrass any candidate who was imitating Kennedy and anger any candidate who wasn’t—the perfect television question.
Congress has made a seemingly minor internal-policy change that fuels the endless campaign: it now pays for members to shuttle back and forth between Washington and their districts. In the 1960s congressmen were allowed up to twelve trips home a year. Now they get expense accounts sufficient to pay for about forty trips. Between government-financed trips and those financed by trade associations and other groups, most members of Congress now go home almost every weekend.
The fact that congressmen are out of town on weekends has led to a significant decrease in personal contact among them. Congressmen who don’t know one another are more likely to believe the worst of one another’s motives, and to lack a sense of common purpose. The introduction into the House, in 1974, of an electronic voting system that employs magnetic key cards has also played a role in this change. Jack Gregory, an official in the Office of the Clerk of the House, says, “Before electronic voting, it took the House forty-five minutes or so to read the rolls. Members were physically compelled to be in the chamber during that time, and they didn’t have much to do, so often they would chat and get to know each other. With electronic voting, they can breeze in and breeze out.”
Representative Udall recalls how different it was when his brother, Stewart, was a congressman, in the 1950s: “He used to drive here from Arizona with the kids in January, and then in June they’d drive home for the summer. If there was a fall session, Stewart would drive back here alone and the kids would go to school in Arizona through the fall; then he’d drive back home at Christmas to get them. That was all—two trips a year at the most.” Now, Udall says, he himself flies back to Arizona thirty-five weekends a year, and sometimes during the week. “From a campaigning standpoint, it means you no longer have that excuse, when someone wants you to appear, of saying you won’t be back in town for three months. They know you can get on a plane.” Congressmen from the western states spend about one day a week in transit, flying back and forth. To accommodate them, congressional schedules are arranged to be light on Mondays and Fridays, and thus are all the more hectic in the middle of the week. Another result of all the traveling and campaigning is simply exhaustion. Synar says, “I am tired, physically tired, all the time, and so are most of the members I know. Tired people do not always make clear decisions.”
Big Money, Big Anxiety
Money rarely buys elections, in 1982 the Republican Party raised five times as much money as the Democratic Party, but the Democrats won more seats. Money can, however, buy individual congressmen’s votes on a bill, or distort congressmen’s thinking on an issue—normally all an interest group needs to achieve its ends. Most important to the structure of Congress, the velocity at which campaign spending has increased over the past ten years has engendered a permanent state of anxiety in which congressmen can never stop worrying about fund-raising and the compromises it entails.
In 1974 a total of $72.5 million was spent on congressional races. In 1982 the amount had risen to $289 million, a 300 percent increase during a period when the consumer price index rose 96 percent. In 1974 the mean expenditure per candidate for the House was $53,000; by 1982 it had risen to $228,000. Those running for senator spent an average of $437,000 apiece in 1974, $1.8 million in 1982. Most of the new money came from PACs, from direct-mail solicitations, and from individuals giving at the behest of PACs—business executives who “voluntarily” made individual contributions to candidates designated by their firms, for example Most of the new money has been spent on television, usually for ads that say little or nothing about matters of substance.
These numbers are impressive enough in themselves, but they represent only part of the picture. Two almost entirely new categories of campaign spending came into being in the 1970s—the nonconnected negative spending of ideological PACs and the “soft money” spending by groups that in order to get around campaign laws are not officially tied to candidates (most of the big money spent in 1982 for conservative Republicans felt into this category, as did Walter Mondale’s “delegate committee” sending in the Democratic primaries). Of the $190 million spent by all PACs on the 1982 congressional campaign, only $84 million went to candidates; the rest went to negative spending or to soft-money commercials in support of candidates who theoretically had no idea that the commercials were being made. In many races the amounts of nonconnected negative and loosely connected soft money spent were greater than party contributions to the candidates; for example, direct contributions to 1982 Republican candidates by the Republican Party averaged $18,000, but soft-money expenses to assist them averaged $264,000.
The rapid acceleration of political spending has taken place for many reasons, among them changes in the campaign laws, an increased focus on Washington as both a cause of national problems and a source of lavish bailouts, and the greater use of ever-more-expensive television time. When the campaign-reform laws of the early 1970s were passed, the pattern of political giving was for unions to collect small sums and donate them to Democrats through proto-PACs like the AFL-CIO’s COPE; for small contributors on both sides to send money more or less spontaneously, usually to addresses they found on campaign brochures or at the end of television appeals; and for wealthy businessmen to give large sums to Republicans in order to receive tax advantages and to win reputations as players. After Watergate left many large donors either indicted or humiliated because their contributions had wound up in the hands of the burglars, businessmen were happy to take a lower profile and find an impersonal means—the PAC loophole in the new laws—for their gifts.
Between PACs and direct mail it has become possible to raise very large sums on a routine basis, and the new political environment of obsession with Washington makes it likelier that companies and individuals will respond when asked. New money-raising tends to appeal to the lowest common denominator, relying on negative pitches, scare tactics, and exaggeration—all political standbys, but refined with targeted marketing techniques.
Political expenditures now function roughly like an arms race in which neither side wants to keep raising the stakes but each is afraid that if it stops, its opponent will not. (Like most weapons, most political contributions serve mainly to cancel each other out.) With expenses constantly rising, there is no telling how much will be needed for next year’s race; several of the congressmen I spoke to said they had lost track of what a “reasonable” total campaign expense might be. So, in the manner of the protagonists in an arms race, congressmen feel compelled to stockpile.
It’s there for the asking—who could resist? Representative Henson Moore, of Louisiana, had $332,000 left over when he won re-election in 1982 by 87 percent of the vote, and he has continued to raise money at an unflagging pace, adding another $273,000 through 1983 and the first six months of 1984. Representative Dan Rostenkowski, of Illinois, raised $519,000 for the 1982 campaign, although he ran nearly unopposed, and raised another $168,000 in 1983. Rostenkowski is the chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, whose members, along with those of the parallel Senate Finance Committee, have the easiest time obtaining donations, since they are in the best position to do specific money favors for specific industries.
That campaign-law reforms accidentally encouraged PACs is widely known, but the greater irony is that they have made congressmen more likely to sell out, and to do so on a wider range of issues. Contributions are now limited to $1,000 for individuals and $5,000 for organizations. What is $5,000 to a congressman who must raise $228,000? Not much, unless he can snare every offer of $5,000 that comes along. No individual contribution is particularly significant; only many gifts from many interests will suffice.
In years past a politician like Robert Kerr, senator from Oklahoma, might be in thrall to the oil interests but a free man on other issues. Two or three checks from the right bank account would have been enough to fund his campaign. Similarly, in 1974, the year of the reform laws, two or three checks from wealthy sources could have supplied the means of $53,000 spent in a House campaign. Today, to raise a large number of contributions, each small compared with the total amount required, a congressman takes advantage of every possible PAC source, and that means making promises to every special interest and every turn.
As a result, congressmen now owe their first loyalty to PAC interests rather than to party or public interests. Corporate lobbyists generally want small favors—a vote on a bill, sometimes as little as a few words inserted into a regulation or a different effective date on a tax provision. Because the favor requested is small and specific, congressmen know that lobbyists will be watching closely to make sure it is delivered; and they know that, by the same token, very few voters will notice or care whether a commodity-straddle exemption is retroactive to 1982 or 1981. This makes possible a relationship between PAC donation sand specific votes that is not possible between PAC donations and general-election returns.
BEST CONGRESS MONEY CAN BUY stories have grown so familiar in recent years that they have lost their power to scandalize and are now thought of as the native complaints of good-government wimps. What kind of national government is it where selling out is so widespread, so generally accepted, that it no longer causes outrage? In the House recently there have been two rival versions of the Superfund bill for the cleanup of toxic wastes; studies by the Congress Watch organization recently discovered that representatives who sponsored the mild version, favored by business, averaged $4,784 in contributions from chemical-company PACs; those who sponsored the strict version averaged $532 from such companies. Since 1981, another public-interest group has found, representatives who regularly voted for bills favored by nuclear-power interests have averaged nearly four times as much in donations from companies in nuclear fields as those who regularly voted against. These are but two of many examples.
There is another reason that congressmen are so concerned with campaign fund-raising: sometimes they can keep the money. Campaign law allows retiring congressmen to convert unspent contributions to personal use, as a sort of informal retirement bonus. So the more a congressman raises, the more he can make—an exceptionally powerful financial incentive not to rock the boat and upset interest groups. When Representative Ray Roberts, of Texas, retired, in 1981, he took with him $13,014 from his campaign fund. In 1979 Congress amended the campaign laws to end such “closeouts” for future congressmen, but those voting took pains to exempt themselves: any congressman first elected before 1980 will be allowed to keep his campaign funds when he retires.
Congressmen who raise more than they need can also use their money to make contributions to each other. Many now have their own personal PACs—Rostenkowski; Stephen Solarz, of New York; and Henry Waxman, of California, among them. Congressmen make donations to assist congressmen of like philosophical slant and to increase their own influence in Congress and within their committees. Well-heeled congressmen competing for the affections of other congressmen through internal PACs have become another force for congressional fractiousness.
An interest group wishing to make a cash payment to a congressman need not resort to the roundabout means of investment in a retirement fund: it can simply give an honorarium for a speech, money that goes straight into the congressman’s pocket. Eleven senators earned more in 1983 from speaking fees than from their salaries. Richard Lugar, of Indiana, netted $129,065 (after contributions to charity) from honoraria; Robert Dole, of Kansas, netted $106,917; and twenty-one senators took in more than $50,000. Corporations pushing a bill that limits product liability paid $34,000to Senator Paul Laxalt, of Nevada, $30,350 to Senator Orrin Hatch, of Utah, and $26,250 to Senator Kasten from 1981 through 1983. Similar fees have been paid by other lobbying interests to other congressmen for speeches, and paid is the proper word: while congressmen use the word honoraria to make their appearances sound like some lofty philanthropic activity, anyone else who makes a speech in return for a fee is referred to as paid.
Honoraria are possible because Congress excluded itself from the conflict-of-interest regulations it imposed on others. If a White House aide accepted $34,000 from a company trying to influence the Administration’s stand on the product-liability bill, there would be loud calls in Congress for the aide’s head. Edwin Meese’s nomination as attorney general was thrown into limbo because Meese borrowed less than congressmen routinely take.
Congressmen also suffer from anxiety relating to their own salaries. Inflation has reduced the buying power of congressional pay by about 40 percent since 1972, while the salaries of corporate executives have gone into orbit. Both senators and representatives make $72,600 and have an honoraria limit of $21,780 (a law limiting honoraria to 30 percent of a congressman’s salary was passed recently, after bad publicity about the huge fees).
Yet congressmen spend their time determining the fates of people who make substantially more—lobbyists earning $150,000 to $500,000 a year solicit them, television newscasters pulling down six-figure salaries (thanks in part to monopoly licenses Congress gave the networks) interview them, corporate executives beg them for tax favors and import restrictions that will translate into higher executive bonuses. The resentments that arise may not reflect favorably on those who profess to be public servants, but they are nevertheless real and they prey on congressmen’s minds, especially since congressmen tend to view themselves as executives of the world’s largest and most important corporation. So whereas $72,600 a year is a lot to the average person, it can easily seem paltry to a congressman; the resulting salary anxiety both distracts congressmen from the people’s work and encourages the type of rationalization according to which there’s nothing wrong with taking $5,000 from a chemical company and voting on its bill the following day.
Congress voting itself a raise is among the most charged of all political topics, yet the public might find it far cheaper in the long run to give congressmen a sizable increase—say, to $100,000—while barring them from outside income of all kinds. The extra few million could be a bargain compared with the money that would be saved if congressmen no longer had an incentive to avert their eyes from billions in cost overruns and sweetheart deals, just to be able to skim a few thousand off for themselves.
There are so many lobbyists today largely because there are so many opportunities to lobby. The breakdown of the seniority system and the weakening of congressional leadership has drastically increased the number of people on whom the touch must be put.
A well-informed veteran lobbyist says, “There used to be two to five guys on each side [House and Senate] who had absolute control over any category of bills you might want. All you had to do was get to them. Now getting the top guys is no guarantee. You have to lobby every member on every relevant subcommittee and even [lobby] the membership at large.”
Another lobbyist, Eiler Ravnholt, who was for twelve years the administrative assistant to Senator Daniel Inouye, of Hawaii, and who now represents the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association, adds that it has become necessary to lobby the expanded staff as well. “In the present environment congressmen spend so much time campaigning that they have no choice but to cede much of the legislative authority to their staffs,” Ravnholt says. “During the 1960s it was not unusual to walk into the Senate library and see Sam Ervin sitting at a desk, researching a bill. Ervin was an exception, but not that much of an exception; until fairly recently many congressmen played active roles in the legislative detail work. Now they can’t. Nobody can. The staff does the detail work, and so you must lobby the staff.” And where before there were a few important individuals on the House and Senate staffs, now there are thousands.
And thousands of lobbyists. There are 6,500 registered lobbyists in Washington (twelve for every congressman), but the figure does not include trade-association officers, lawyers working on retainer to clients, or liaison officials of corporations with Washington offices. The generally accepted total is about 20,000, or thirty-seven lobbyists for every congressman. Determined interest groups often hire several lobbyists, whose contacts grant access to different sectors of Congress. Brewers pressing for a beer-distribution-monopoly bill have, for example, hired the firm of Wagner and Baroody (all-purpose lobbying), Kip O’Neill, son of Tip O’Neill (access to Democrats), the former congressman John Napier, of South Carolina (access to Republicans), and Romano Romani, a former aide to Senator Dennis DeConcini (access to senators). So many lobbyists in Washington now represent so many overlapping interests that a subspecialty has sprung up—lobbying among lobbyists.
The budget process has been a veritable boon to the lobbying profession. With multiple votes, there is a steady progression of brush fires for lobbyists to stamp out—increasing their clients’ anxiety and willingness to pay high fees—and also many more opportunities for a lobbyist to make his case. “Now they can wear you down,” Senator Patrick Leahy, of Vermont, says. “You might be able to hold out for the public interest on the first, second, third, fourth, fifth votes, but on the sixth vote they’re back again, and many give in.”
Unlike the public, whose attention fades from an issue when it appears that the struggle has been fought and finished (HOUSE KILLS MX), lobbyists have an interest in duplication. Billing by the hour, they are only too happy to have the process drag on interminably. And their attention does not wander: the many minor budget votes that become a blur even in the minds of congressmen are a perfect vehicle for quietly winning concession after concession. Representative Udall says, “The more fragmented the system is, the easier it is for pressure groups to exert control. This is a side effect of our reforms no one anticipated.”
When a House-Senate conference committee working on the “deficit down payment” bill went into all night session last June, the other congressmen went home, but the lobbyists stayed. As Rostenkowski and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dole emerged with an agreement at 5:30 A.M., they found about a hundred lobbyists still sitting outside the conference room. Among the 282 provisions of the bill, which was supposed to reduce the deficit, was a new $1.4 billion tax break for insurance companies; $600 million in reduced capital-gains taxes; $300 million in extra benefits for commodity traders, mainly in Rostenkowski’s home town, Chicago, who had used tax straddles (the benefits were for “professional” traders, not ordinary citizens—only for the people who were supplying the money Rostenkowski doesn’t need), and other favors.
So pervasive are lobbyists in Congress that it is not uncommon to see them crowded outside the main chamber doors in the House and Senate giving thumbs-up or thumbs-down signals to congressmen rushing in for roll-call votes. Photographers are forbidden to take pictures by the chamber doors, so they cannot capture this spectacle. Lobbyists became upset recently when, in the wake of the Senate bombing, Capitol security passes were issued. The lobbyists were granted access privileges, but their passes were blue, whereas staff passes were red or yellow and press passes green; this made it easy to tell when a congressman was in the company of a lobbyist. Fortunately for lobbyists, it has become fashionable on Capitol Hill to wear one’s pass tucked into one’s shirt pocket.
Ideological lobby groups have increased in number since the early 1970s; most specialize in anti-politics and take pride in bringing Congress to a halt. The increases in roll-call voting have been caused partly by ideologically extreme congressmen who demand recorded votes even when they know they will lose, in order to create a record they can run against—a sort of anti-Washington index. In the winter of 1984, when the school-prayer issue was at its peak, many senators felt that a silent-prayer amendment stood a good chance of passing. But Reagan Administration lobbyists were adamant that a silent-prayer amendment stood a good chance of passing. But Reagan Administration lobbyists were adamant that a silent-prayer amendment not be allowed on the floor, for the very reason that it might succeed. They were hoping instead to lose a roll-call vote on vocal prayer and thereby create a convenient list of “against prayer” Democrats for Republicans to attack during the fall campaign.
Like expanded staffs and extra subcommittees, interest groups, once they are formed, take on lives of their own. Senator Leahy explains, “Say a group is created to campaign for an issue, like school prayer. Once it has a director, a staff, and a mailing list, it is not going to go out of business if the staff has anything to do about it. They will look for another issue. Half of the interest groups are really running on self-interest, the interest of the staffs in keeping their jobs.” Jesse Helms’s National Congressional Club, as the journalist Tina Rosenberg has documented, raised $9.3 million during the 1982 election cycle, ostensibly to aid conservative causes, but gave away only $150,000; fully 98 percent of the contributions went to salaries and overhead.
Congressmen have many money-related reasons to be tolerant of lobbyists, among them that an increasing number of retired or defeated congressmen are staying in Washington to become lobbyists themselves. Of 856 living former congressmen, roughly 25 percent are still in the Washington area—although fewer than one percent came from the Washington area originally. Every longtime Washington observer I have spoken to agrees that the percentage of congressmen staying in Washington is much higher today than it was in the past. Even the percentage of offspring and siblings in lobbying is up, as Bill Keller, of The New York Times, has written. Besides Kip O’Neill (whose firm lobbies for sugar and cruise-ship concerns in addition to beer), there is Robin Dole, daughter of Robert Dole (a lobbyist for Century 21), Jamie Whitten, Jr. (steel, barge, and cork interests), Virginia Brown, daughter of House Majority Leader James Wright (National Association of Homebuilders), Michelle Laxalt, daughter of Paul (oil, Wall Street, Hollywood), John Laxalt, brother of Paul (South Korean industry), James Schroeder, husband of Colorado Representative Patricia Schroeder (Israeli interests), and others. Everybody’s doing it—why not me? Or my family?
Even the number of Congress’s internal lobby groups, or caucuses, has risen. Today twenty-seven formal caucuses have staffs and receive federal funds; another sixty operate informally out of members’ offices. Current caucuses include the Senate Copper Caucus, the House Footwear Caucus, the Congressional Port Caucus, the House and Senate Steel caucuses, the Senate Tourism Caucus (not a fund-raising group), the Senate Rail Caucus, the Congressional Coal Group, the Congressional Jewelry Manufacturing Coalition, the Congressional Alcohol Fuels Caucus, the Senate Children’s Caucus, and the Congressional Mushroom Caucus.
No Fun Anymore
“I often feel that by the time I arrived in Congress, in 1974, the fun was over,” Representative Gradison says. “All the landmark legislation, the laws that were exciting and glorious to take part in, had been passed. Now the bills were beginning to fall due, and there would not be glorious work for us, just the struggle to pay those bills.”
Through the 1960s and early 1970 Congress made history time and again: the Civil Rights Act; the Voting Rights Act; the Clean Air and Water acts; Medicare and Medicaid; the Resource Conservation and Recovery and Toxic Substances Control acts, which started federal action against toxic wastes; new federal housing programs and aid to education; the successful battles against Nixon and the seniority system; public financing for presidential races; disclosure laws for federal candidates and officials—the list goes on.
Twenty years ago a congressman looking at the nation saw wrong, like legally sanctioned discrimination, that could be righted simply by changing the law. It can be argued that today’s political horizon is far different. There are many intractable dilemmas, but few open-and-shut cases such as raw pollution being pumped into a stream. Most current social problems don’t have self-evident solutions of the type that Congress could codify in bills and announce tomorrow. Stopping the poll tax against blacks was one thing; moving an entire generation out of the ghetto and into the economic mainstream is quite another, and it’s not at all clear how that can be done.
Congressmen face, instead, the tasks of reining in dramatic programs of previous Congresses and cutting the deficit, which are neither politically glamorous nor pleasant tasks. “They build statues and name schools after people who promote great programs,” Representative Bill Frenzel, of Minnesota, says. “They never build statues for people who have to say no.”
Indeed, what with the fragmentation of Congress, the inherent unpleasantness of cutbacks, and the eye-glazing vista of deficits of $172 billion, it becomes difficult for congressmen to take seriously the idea that any one particular cut matters. Everybody’s taking what they can get—why should my program be the one to suffer when the deficit is so vast? What difference could another few hundred million possibly make?
Traditionally, congressmen find it easiest to advocate a bold new spirit of austerity in someone else’s state or district. But there is a sense in which congressmen do not even mind excessive spending in other districts: it creates an atmosphere in which overspending is the norm and money for pet programs is less likely to be challenged.
In June, when the $18 billion water-projects authorization bill was about to go to the House floor, James Howard, of New Jersey, the chairman of the Public Works Committteee, circulated a roster of the House with black spots next to the names of members in whose districst were programs he planned to attack if they voted against the water bil. Included in the Public Works Committee’s bill was $189 million for a dam in the district of the committee’s ranking Republican, Representative Gene Snyder, of Kentucky. Representative Harold Wolpe, of Michigan, who got a black dot, told T. R. Reid, of The Washington Post, “You always hear rumors in the cloakroom that they’ll kill your project if you dare to oppose anybody else’s, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen thtem put in on paper. … It’s extraordinarily blatant.” The more spending in general, the more for my district: everybody does it. Any congressman who goes after another congressman’s program knows his will be attacked in turn, both by the congressman and by the program’s PACs and lobbyists. Even a congressman who might be willing to accept a cut in his own district knows that in the present undisciplined environment he would be played for a sucker; no other congressmen would join in the sacrifice.
This attitude helps explain why, for example, nearly every congressman favors cutting the defense budget in the abstract but votes to preserve the individual programs that make up that budget. In 1983 Congress added $4.6 billion to the Pentagon appropriations that President Reagan had asked for. Defense lobbyists in particular are adept, when budget showdowns approach, at avoiding any discussion of whether their projects are the efficient or otherwise proper choice, and at framing the issues strictly in terms of jobs: Congressman, this vote represents 2,000 jobs for your district. Any government expenditure creates jobs—the question is what jobs are best for the nation when national needs, finances, and policies are weighed. But this question is seldom posed to an individual congressman. The question posed is, Do you want these jobs in your district today or not? Do you want your name on them or not?
These considerations apply to most government spending decisions, but they do so with unusual force in defense because of the twenty-second rule. A congressman who presses to reform specific defense programs will win little political credit. Few voters know or care what, say, an AGM-65D is; there’s no reason why a voter should, and the benefits of Pentagon reform—lower deficits and greater national readiness—are long-term and directly felt by no one. At the same time, any congressman who challenges a military-spending program exposes himself to the twenty-second charge of being “against defense.”
Cutting back and slowing down giveaways has never been fun. For example, it took a public outcry in the late 1940s to kill the excise tax and color restrictions on margarine, which were bald favors for the dairy lobby. But now the congressional agenda seems to consist almost entirely of no-fun issues, and there is no indication that Congress is ready to face them.
The results of the 1984 summer session are suggestive. Congress went into the session having passed the “deficit down payment” bill, which included $50 billion in tax increases over a three-year period but only $13 billion in spending cuts—mostly from Medicare payments, although $1.6 billion of the “cuts” came from postponing payment of military retirees’ cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) so that they would fall in the next fiscal year. (On the same day that the House Budget Committee was making its “down payment,” the full House was approving initial funding for the space station, which makes for a dramatic election-year announcement, and costs little now, but commits the nation to spending at least $8 billion over the next few years to build the project and many billions more to operate it.)
During August two of the leading boondoggles at present, the Synthetic Fuels Corporation and subsidized operation of the Hoover Dam, came up for votes. There was a chance to kill synfuels subsidies, but only limited cuts were made, and $8 billion was left in the program. Meanwhile, power subsidies for the Southwest, where electricity from federally financed dams costs about one twelfth what consumer-financed power costs in the East, were preserved and extended until 2017 at a cost of at least $6 billion. These two acts alone wiped out all the cuts in the “deficit down payment.”
Through the summer congressmen continued to try to have fun, passing new spending bills: $1 billion extra for college financial aid, $175,000 to study promotion of Iowa commerce, $2.5 million for the city of Oakland to restore a presidential yacht, $1 million for business loans in Queens, $12 million for a highway-safety “demonstration” program in Michigan, increases in the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s budget, then $130 million, to $270 million a year by 1989, an extra $350 million in postal subsidies, $500,000 for a golf course near Capitol Hill. Congress was only following the example of the President. At a news conference on July 24 he had condemned Congress and blamed its “do-nothing Democrats” for failing to pass a balanced-budget amendment. He went on to ask for a $5 billion bonus Social Security benefit increase, a new IRA tax break, extra tax benefits for business in enterprise zones, and more tuition tax credits for private schools.
Henry Bellmon, a senator from Oklahoma, retired in 1980 to return to his farm near Billings, grow wheat, and raise cattle. He had been the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee; had he stayed, he probably would have become chairman. When I spoke with him, the latest Congressional Budget Office estimates had just been released. There would be a $172 billion deficit this year (the all-time record, before Reagan, was $66 billion). Federal borrowing would be $175 billion, about the same as the deficit. Interest on those loans would account for $110 billion, or close to twice the highest pre-Reagan deficit for interest alone: little principal would be retired.
The CBO projected that even if economic growth continues unabated, the deficit will be $263 billion in 1989. If growth is moderate, the deficit will be $308 billion. The CBO didn’t calculate what might happen if there is another recession. “There simply aren’t enough discretionary cuts left to affect deficits like that,” Bellmon said. He proceeded to recite the basic breakdown of present federal spending:
Entitlements (mainly Social Security, Medicare, military and civil-service pensions): 45 percent
Welfare: less than one percent
Defense: 28 percent
Interest on the federal debt: 14 percent
Everything else: 13 percent
Percentage of present federal spending that is deficit spending: 20
Bellmon explained, “That means that if you cut out absolutely everything government does that is not related to entitlements or national defense, you would still have a deficit.” Absolutely everything would include closing downt he FBI, the State Department, the CIA, and all other federal agencies; ending all education grants and revenue-sharing grants to states and cities (“fiscally sound” local governments are financed in part by the federal deficit, although mayors and governors usually forget to mention that when they condemn the big spenders in Washington); stopping all farm price supports and all federal construction and maintenance of highways, bridges, waterways, subways, and dams; ending Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation protection of bank deposits and cutting off all federally subsidized mortgage loans; closing down the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Science Foundation, the Centers for Disease Control, the Smithsonian, and the National Transportation Safety Board; ending all border patrols and abolishing the Immigration and Naturalization Service; ending all air-traffic control, all inspection of nuclear-power plants, all monitoring of stock fraud through the Securities and Exchange Commission, all federal arts funding, all federal courts, all national parks.
“Under these conditions we have only three choices,” Bellmon continued. “What must happen is either a major arms-reduction agreement with the Soviets that will allow us to cut back drastically on defense. Or a major reduction in the COLAs for everybody. Or a major tax increase. Those are the choices.”
In other words, except in the unlikely event of a new détente, the message of politics in the 1980s must be, Expect less—either less Social Security and Medicare and lower pensions or less income after taxes.
In the 1920s society lived well beyond its means and pretended that tomorrow would never come. is the United States Congress, in its present state, able to deal with to-morrow? Can it take the message to the voters that they should in every way expect less?
In early January the Ninety-ninth Congress will prepare to convene. The first few days, in which the party caucuses will meet to make committee assignments and alter rules, will set the tone for the next two years. Here are some possibilities congressional leaders might consider:
Committee structures should be combined and simplified; particularly, the quadruple budget/appropriations/authorization/revenue sequence should be reduced by at least one phase. The most logical and least turf-destructive reductions would be to combine the budget committees with the revenue committees, putting the combined groups in control of overall revenue-versus-appropriations ratios, and to eliminate the appropriations committees. Money and policy amount to the same thing. Why must Congress pretend otherwise?
Seniority-system reforms should be reeled back somewhat—not to return to the stagnant old days but to stop the tail from wagging the dog.
Congressmen should receive a substantial raise and in return be required to forsake all forms of outside income. They are supposed to function as judges of society’s needs; they should be as far above reproach (and influence) as judges.
There should be an absolute freeze on present federal-spending levels, extending to all entitlement programs and defense. If Congress wanted to allocate more money to one program, it would have to take some away from somewhere else. Congressmen cannot hope to reverse the “everybody does it” mentality of deficit increases without a political tool—a means by which they can argue to constituents (in simple, twenty-second terms) that they would like to give them more but just can’t. There is nothing in the original social compacts of Social Security and other entitlement programs that confers a “right” to perpetual increases or to benefits for those who don’t need them; those “rights” are political creations of Congress, and can be reversed.
A pay-as-you-go law should be enacted. Advocated by Senator John Glenn and others, pay-as-you-go would be a direct means of accomplishing what the budget process attempts to accomplish indirectly: tying government revenues to spending. Any legislation allocating new funds would at the same time have to provide a source for those funds, in the form of either a tax increase or a deduction from another program. When a person buys something, he considers the purchase not in the abstract but in light of how much he has to spend and what will be left over for other purchases. Businesses act the same way. Only government separates the question of what to spend from what is affordable. Pay-as-you-go would have far more teeth than the strictly symbolic balanced-budget amendment, which would require Congress to balance the budget unless, on an annual basis, it voted otherwise. The balanced-budget amendment would add another showy “process” but no actual discipline.
Budgets should be drawn up on a two-year cycle to reduce duplication. Multi-year procurement cycles should be employed for the development and manufacture of complicated items like weapons. Military contractors may feed at the public trough in a shameless manner, but in their behalf it should be said that changing their instructions regularly, as Congress is prone to do, does not make for efficient business. To help longer-cycle budgets work, Congress should devise a “this time we really mean it” clause that could prevent budget decisions from being constantly re-opened for tinkering.
Lobbyists should be denied access to the Capitol. Of course lobbyists are not all sinister; most are simply doing their job. But the number of supplicants gathered round to demand handouts makes it difficult for congressmen to think clearly. Imagine lobbyists for parties in a lawsuit allowed in to see the judge—how credible would his decision be? And having lobbyists crowd outside the chambers of the House and Senate, flashing thumb signs to congressmen like coaches issuing orders to Little Leaguers, is a national disgrace.
There should be a cap on total campaign expenditures for each candidate. The existence of PACs and interest groups is far less corrupting than the need to raise great and ever-greater sums. If House races were limited to, say, $100,000 and Senate races to $500,000, the temptation to pander would be greatly reduced. Also, all campaign funds unspent after a given election should either be returned to donors or be contributed toward retiring the federal debt. If there were a cap on what congressmen could spend and no way for them to hoard what they didn’t spend, fund-raising would be far less addictive than it is today. Restraining nonconnected and soft-money groups would not be as easy as restraining congressmen. But at least this proposal would get the congressmen out of fund-raising and back to their responsibilities.
What can be done to restrain indirect spending on campaigns, when the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech? Preserve that freedom by limiting all advertising to speech. Whether by candidates or by representatives of soft-money or ideological groups, only speech, in which an actual, real, named, identifiable person stands and talks would be permitted. No electronic graphics; no talking cows; no actors pretending to be men in the street; no sunset walks along the beach. Banning Madison Avenue-style advertising from politics has been advocated by Curtis Gans, the director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. The Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that money used to buy time on or space in communication media equates to the freedom of speech. This ruling has caused many people to think that the Gans approach would be held unconstitutional. But what do special effects, actors, and graphics have to do with any freedom we hold dear? Their purpose is to evade political debate, not advance it. Let money be used to buy TV spots, but only ones that hold to a standardized format, in which real candidates or real spokesmen for groups stand before the same solid-color background and state their ideas—whatever those ideas might be—with absolute privilege. This would surely satisfy the Founding Fathers, reduce the cost of campaigning, and by the way return the focus of politics to the issues.
The congressional calendar should be fixed, making it harder to put off decisions over and over again. A quarter system might be appropriate. During three quarters of the year congressmen would not be permitted to shuttle home to campaign but would be required to stay in Washington and attend to their work. During the fourth quarter Congress would shut down, and congressmen could return to their districts to find out for themselves what is happening there. During this time they could also hold away-from-Washington hearings—an art that dried with television and instant access to publicity—in order to hear testimony from average Americans, not members of the Washington expert set.
None of these reforms would be easy to implement, especially those that involve intrusions upon existing turf and perquisites. But if congressmen cannot govern Congress, how can they hope to govern the country?
In 1984 several governors were begged by national party officials to run for Senate seats; all refused, seeing no reason to surrender jobs where they could accomplish something useful in order to submit themselves to the 535-ring circus that is Congress. A generation ago the idea of politicians who would rather avoid joining the Senate would have been outrageous; now it seems perfectly reasonable. Congress, unique among our government institutions, has control over its own fate—it can’t blame another branch of the government for its condition. Before Congress can lead the nation, it must be able to lead itself.
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