January 10, 2006
Changing the Culture of Congress
One of the unstated
causes of the unfolding lobbying scandal swirling around Jack
Abramoff is the extensive changes to the nature of both the membership
and staffing of Congress over the last 30 years and a breakdown
of longstanding legislative procedures.
These days, most
congressional aides -- and even some of the members -- look like
they are barely out of college. And although they may be smart
and well educated, they have no depth of experience and no commitment
to the Congress as an institution. They are simply there to get
a line on their resume before going off to become lobbyists and
make the big bucks.
It wasn't like that
when I started work in the House of Representatives 30 years ago.
A great many aides had made a career out of working on Capitol
Hill, and it wasn't unusual to work with people who had been around
for 20 or more years. There was a loyalty to their bosses and
to the legislative process then that seems to have completely
One reason for this
is that the commitment of members of Congress to the institution
and to good government has sharply waned. In 1976, when I first
became a congressional aide, there were members around who had
been elected in the 1920s -- Rep. Wright Patman, Democrat of Texas,
is one in particular that I remember. He took office in 1929 and
often talked about the financial difficulties his grandfather
faced after the Civil War, which shaped Patman's own views about
banks forever afterward.
Congressmen of that
era weren't just marking time until they became lobbyists. Being
a lobbyist to them was like being a prostitute -- it was something
you did only when desperate. Their main goal was simply to acquire
enough seniority to become a committee chairman, because that
is where the real power in Congress was.
like Wilbur Mills, Democrat of Arkansas and longtime chairman
of the House Ways and Means Committee, had enormous power to shape
legislation, and smart presidents deferred to them and sought
their advice before advancing a major proposal. For example, John
F. Kennedy was very influenced by Mills in developing his 1963
tax plan, as we now know from White House tape recordings (online
One way that chairmen
maintained their power was by insisting that proper procedures
be followed in the legislative process. Bills were referred to
subcommittees, which held hearings and markups before sending
them to the full committee. And then there would be more hearings
and markups at the full committee level. Thorough committee reports
were prepared and printed for each bill, so that every member
had a clear idea of what the legislation would do long before
it came up for a vote.
This was very time-consuming.
It often took more than one Congress for major proposals to even
get through one house, before the process started all over again
in the other house. By the time a bill finally became law, it
had been through the wringer several times, which helped ensure
that everyone knew what was in it and how it would work, and every
affected party had been heard from.
This system, which
had served the country well for almost 200 years, started to break
down in the 1970s, when liberal Democrats destroyed the seniority
system in the House. This made it easier for them to move legislation,
but also undermined the committee system itself. Also, when members
knew they would no longer be rewarded automatically for service,
you started to get faster turnover among members and staff, who
took with them an enormous amount of institutional memory and
commitment to the Congress as an institution.
When the Republicans
took control in 1994, they destroyed what was left of the historical
system. Most subcommittees were abolished. Major bills were brought
up for committee votes without any hearings at all or even a draft
bill that could be reviewed ahead of time. After a while, the
Republicans even dispensed with committee markups, with the leadership
using the Rules Committee to bring bills directly to the floor,
often in the dead of night.
This trampling of
the committee system helped give rise to the Abramoff scandal.
A lobbyist no longer needed to know the substance of a bill or
have long experience with the committee of jurisdiction. He just
needed to know one guy in the leadership who could stick his proposal
into a bill when no one was looking. By the time the bill was
even printed, it would already be law.
The Republican leadership
plans new restrictions on lobbying to protect themselves from
Abramoff fallout. But a real reform would be to empower Congress's
committees once again and make it harder for the leadership to
act without proper oversight and deliberation.
2005 Creators Syndicate