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What Congress needs to know.

For at least the ninth time in the past 50 years the Congress of the United States is engaged in a process of intense self-criticism. Some of those earlier efforts to improve the legislative process ultimately led to major reorganization and new procedures, but many of the problems now being addressed were created by previous reforms.

Every political scientist, journalist and member of Congress has his or her own list of the institution's ills, but all agree that excessive fragmentation, poor scheduling and increased political posturing at the expense of serious debate have crippled the legislative process and shaken the public's faith.

"I've been associated with many public and private organizations," says Congressman Paul Gillmor, who served 22 years in the Ohio Legislature, six of them as president of the Senate, "and the U.S. House is the worst run entity I've ever seen."

If Congress is searching for proven solutions to its seemingly intractable problems, it might consider the experiences of the 50 state legislatures. These laboratories" for experimentation, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once called them, have grappled with--and frequently overcome--many of the same procedural problems that today plague Congress.

The Leadership Vacuum

At the end of the first decade of this century, members of the U.S. House of Representatives rebelled against the dictatorial authority of Speaker Joe Cannon, stripping him and his successor, Champ Clark, of many of their formal powers. Today, most observers of Congress agree that the diffusion of power in the House of Representatives, encouraged by reforms adopted during the 1970s, is one of the main causes of the body's inefficiency and legislative paralysis.

As committees and subcommittees carved out their own niches, and individual members looked less to their party caucuses for their political marching orders and more to interest groups and local constituents, party leaders in both houses of Congress have found it increasingly difficult to enact a coherent agenda.

The experience of state legislatures suggests that Congress could redress that chaos and fragmentation by enhancing the powers of its formal leaders-including the speaker of the House and the majority leaders. Strong leaders translate into agenda-setting and party discipline, creating an institution that knows where it is going and how to get there.

Many state legislative presiding officers have the authority to appoint and, remove committee chairmen, refer bills and unilaterally manage their chambers. That makes them more powerful than the leaders of Congress. Not surprisingly, their legislatures are often more responsive and productive than Congress.

Congressman Ben Cardin, who served eight years as speaker of the Maryland House, thinks Washington could take a lesson from the states. "In Congress, committee chairmen get their position from seniority, so they have little structural loyalty to party leadership or to the institution. Congress gives individual members too much freedom. In the states, which give more power to their legislative leaders, legislators take great pride in the institution's overall product."


Weak institutional leadership at the very top, however, is only one aspect of Congress's growing decentralization. More than 100 years ago, in 1885, Woodrow Wilson wrote, "The House has as many leaders as there are subjects of legislation." But even Wilson would be shocked by the explosion of committees and subcommittees and by the multiple referrals in today's Congress.

In the 103rd Congress, there are 251 standing Select, special and joint committees and subcommittees accounting for about 4,100 seats, according to University of Maryland political scientist Roger Davidson. Davidson has calculated that the average U.S. representative sits on two committees and four subcommittees, and the average senator sits on 11 committees and subcommittees.

The proliferation of committee and subcommittee meetings makes it impossible for members to attend most hearings or devote time to deliberation. Although staffers pick up the slack and written testimony is available, members acknowledge that they would have a better grasp of the issues involved in a particular bill if they were able to spend more time listening to and interrogating witnesses.

The size of the problem was probably put best by Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution when, in testimony before the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress in April, they argued that "the ballooning number of committee assignments of members--leading to increasing conflicts in scheduling, a frenetic pace of legislative life and a shorter attention span of members, accompanied by decreasing attendance committee and subcommittee hearings, and less real focus on important problems--has been one of the clearest and deepest problems we have seen emerge and grow."

Many states have addressed Congress's committee problem by avoiding subcommittees altogether or by making extensive use of joint committees. The Missouri, Texas and New York legislatures, for example, don't use subcommittees nor does the New Hampshire House, which has 400 members and is closest in number to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Unlike Congress, most states have rules prohibiting committee meetings when floor action is underway, thereby ensuring that members devote time to their committee responsibilities and floor debate.

"I can tell you that that rule is enforced," chuckles Congressman Mike Crapo, who served 10 years in the Idaho Senate, the last four as president pro tem. "I actually sent the sergeant-at-arms to shut down committee hearings a couple of times when I heard they were meeting at the same time that the entire body was in session."

In many states, including Florida and Colorado, committees are scheduled for certain time slots, and members are not allowed to sit on committees that meet at the same time. Members are also expected to attend committee sessions.

"You had your fights in committees because that was where your work was done," says freshman Congresswoman Karen Thurman, who served in the Florida Senate and chaired its Agriculture Committee for two years. "If you were interested in a piece of legislation, you'd want to debate it in committee."

Thurman thinks that steps to allow and encourage members to participate more fully in committee and subcommittee activities would be the single most important reform that Congress could adopt.

Committee and subcommittee growth in Congress is complicated by overlapping jurisdictions and multiple referrals. Bills are no longer simply referred to a single committee. Instead, they are frequently referred simultaneously to many committees, increasing the number of obstacles any bill must overcome. The omnibus trade bill of the 100th Congress was the product of 23 committees--14 in the House and nine in the Senate.

In most state legislative chambers, even those that allow multiple referrals, most bills go to a single substantive committee. Florida's Thurman recalls the relatively straightforward way one of her bills, dealing with underground storage tanks, made its route through the Florida Senate, beginning with the Natural Resources Committee.

"In [Congress], it might have been referred immediately to a number of committees," she says, noting that the Florida system was "more orderly" and gave bills 'a better chance of passage."

To Maryland's Cardin, the problem is simple. "There are too many chiefs and not enough Indians. Congress needs, fewer committees and subcommittees so that there are fewer people dealing with each bill."


State legislatures seem to be light years ahead of Congress when it comes to scheduling. Quorum calls, scheduling conflicts and meaningless debate delay congressional action and frustrate many members, especially those who have served in more efficient state bodies.

"I spend three or four hours every week voting on procedural motions. We didn't do that in Ohio. In the state legislature, many members would get on their colleagues who talked too much and wasted time. That doesn't happen here," says Gillmor.

Gillmor, who served as majority leader and as presiding officer in the Ohio Senate, says that in the legislature he was able to "put out a six-month schedule of what we would be doing and when we would be doing it. On the first day of a new Congress we all know what the major bills are. But there is no scheduling because there is no sense of urgency," says the Ohio Republican.

"Things are clearly more structured in Wisconsin than they are in Congress," agrees Senator Russ Feingold, who spent 10 years in the Wisconsin Senate, and arrived in Washington this year.

"In the Legislature, you needed to vote when your name was called, and you couldn't leave your seat during a roll call vote. Things were far more predictable, and it was far more certain that you'd actually hear the debate," he adds.

Other congressmen who served in state legislatures also consider the lack of serious floor debate and poor attendance (made possible by the extended time allowed to cast a floor vote) as problems that the states have avoided.

Most states have regular procedures and deadlines to ensure that bills move through the process--or die--and that members have time to become familiar with them before casting a vote on the floor. Unlike the U.S. House of Representatives, which has a Rules Committee that sets limits for debate and amendment on each bill, most state legislatures adopt rules at the beginning of a session that apply to all bills.

The procedures adopted in state legislatures generally treat the minority party better, defusing the frustration that members inevitably feel.

"We accorded a much greater degree of fairness to the minority than they do here in Washington," insists Gillmor, who echoes the sentiments of many Republicans. He acknowledges that congressional Republicans' anger about how they have been treated 'has led to some of the delaying."

Budgeting and Appropriations

"No state has as complex a process as that of Congress for authorizing program expenditures, establishing budget targets and appropriating money," says William Pound, executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Congress's multi-layered approach involves repetition and duplication, leading to legislative delay and mushrooming deficits. Both houses of Congress must adopt a budget resolution setting nonbinding targets for overall federal spending. Then bills must make their way through separate authorizing and appropriating committees in both the House and Senate.

Most states, on the other hand, have a more centralized approach that combines authorization and appropriation and leads to more accommodation and greater fiscal responsibility.

In Idaho, for example, all finance matters are referred immediately to the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee, made up of Senate and House members. Bills passing the committee go to the floor in each chamber where they are assured of ready-made support.

"The procedure creates consensus among members of the House and Senate. And since a single committee is watching all spending, there is strict fiscal accountability and responsibility," says Idaho's Crapo.

Other states also have centralized systems. Wisconsin has a joint committee that handles all revenue and appropriations bills. Colorado's powerful Joint Budget Committee develops a budget recommendation that is submitted to both houses. The committee is influential not only because members are appointed by the leadership, but also because of its expertise.

"Usually all of the members of the Joint Budget Committee sign off on the budget and defend the measure in the party caucuses. So if you want to change the budget, you are, in effect, taking on not only the committee, but also individual influential members who are on the committee and the leadership who appointed the members," says freshman Congressman Scott McInnis, a former Colorado House majority leader.

One of the strongest critics of the federal budget process is Congressman Robert Franks. One of a handful of freshman on the House Budget Committee, Franks spent more than a dozen years in the New Jersey Legislature, part of the time as House GOP caucus chairman.

"I know household budgets in New Jersey that are far more detailed than the targets established by Congress's Budget Committee," he fumes. "The federal budget we just passed is 14 pages long ... in big print! There's no indication of what policy considerations went into adopting the targets. In New Jersey, we pass a line-by-line budget that includes every spending program."

State legislative budget processes are also often aided by consensus revenue forecasting. Unlike Washington, where the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget are often at odds, 17 states now require their legislative and executive branches to agree on revenue projections so that legislators know how much money they can spend.

In Florida, the Division of Economic and Demographic Research, which includes staffers from both houses of the Legislature and the governor's office, prepares economic forecasts. In Wisconsin, the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau performs a similar function. Idaho establishes a Joint Revenue Projections Committee that meets for a few weeks before the beginning of a session to take testimony and draw up a nonbinding resolution that sets revenue targets for the year.

Professionalism and Staff

There was a time when observers of state legislatures derided the amateur nature of those bodies. With smaller staffs, lower salaries and a part-time approach to governing, many state legislatures were caricatured as tools of special interests. But those legislatures that modelled themselves after Congress's professional approach are now saddled with many of Washington's shortcomings while "citizen legislatures" have avoided the worst of Congress's problems.

"Some state legislatures, particularly those that are still part-time, have a sense of community that extends beyond the party caucuses. Congress has virtually no sense of community because members don't have the time for it," says political scientist Alan Rosenthal of the Eagleton Institute.

To congressmen who served in part-time legislatures, Congress's lack of community and its full-time operation is a major problem. "The big difference between the Colorado legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives is that you can't establish close relationships with the people you work with here," says Colorado's McInnis. "Back home, since the legislature is now limited to only 120 days each year, everybody worked together. And we accomplished in 120 days what we used to do in 160 to 240 days."

The explosive growth in Congress's member and committee staffs that took place in the late '60s and '70s is a particular target of critics. While members of Congress need more staff because they generally represent far larger populations than do state legislators, even ardent supporters of the institution believe that some staff reductions would be desirable. The average size of a congressman's personal staff is 17, about double that of California and Texas state senators who represent comparable or larger populations.

Maryland's Cardin thinks reducing the number of committees should lead to cuts in overall congressional staff. He argues that smaller staffs would encourage congressmen to adopt a more "hands on" approach.

In testimony in February, Ornstein and Mann, who oppose "drastic, across-the-board cuts" because they might compromise Congress's independence, suggested a small reduction in congressional staff to "encourage members to think through the allocation of their resources and responsibilities."


Like Washington, the states are trying to grapple with ethics issues. And they have had their share of political scandals and public relations disasters with which to contend. Congress is actually ahead of many states in establishing and enforcing standards of ethical conduct and in wrestling with campaign finance issues, but Washington could still look to a number of states for further reforms.

Minnesota and Wisconsin have partial public funding for legislative elections. Even if Congress doesn't want to go that far, it might consider prohibiting members from accepting any gifts, as Wisconsin has done.

"You can't even accept a free cup of coffee in Wisconsin if you are a state legislator," says Feingold, a former state senator. In fact, Feingold is so impressed with this Wisconsin law that he has imposed it unilaterally on his U.S. Senate office, returning gifts or sending them to charities.

Feingold doesn't mince words about the importance of tough ethics and campaign finance rules. "I can't think of anything more important," he says.

Some states, including California and Washington, have instituted periodic ethics workshops for their members. Congress could also benefit from examining the various state approaches to ethics reform. In New Jersey, the Legislature recently switched from a members-only ethics committee to a body that includes both legislators and public representatives.

"That change has allowed the public to have a greater degree of confidence in the Legislature because the ethics body has become a citizens' watch dog. Under the old system, the public thought the Legislature didn't take the ethics committee seriously," says New Jersey's Franks.

The sheer amount of activity undertaken, as well as the size of its membership and the demands on it, makes the Congress unique among the nation's legislatures. But the various experiences of the state legislatures suggest a road map for reform that is readily available.

State legislative experiences indicate that Congress would be improved by strengthening leaders, better scheduling, fewer subcommittees, clearer committee jurisdictions and a sharp drop in multiple referrals, a more efficient appropriations process and stricter ethics rules. The states are showing the way. Now it's up to Congress to follow the directions.

Although there is general agreement about Congress's problems and the steps needed to overcome them, it is more likely that Washington will opt for incremental rather than dramatic reform. If there is change, it is likely to come from the large number of newly elected congressmen, many of whom served in state government and know that Washington must do better.

"The real problem, however, isn't that Congress is unable to follow the states," warns Eagleton Institute's Rosenthal. "The real problem is that state legislatures are following the example of Congress."

Reforming Congressional Reforms

The Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, established by concurrent resolution in 1992, is only the latest attempt to reform the federal legislative process. It's been tried before.

The Legislative Reform Act of 1946 was the first. A product of another Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress chaired by Wisconsin Senator, Robert LaFollette Jr. and Oklahoma Representative A. S. Mike Monroney, the law cut the number of House committees from 48 to 19, and the number of Senate committees from 33 to 15, authorized professional and clerical staffs for standing committees and established the Joint Budget Committee.

The 1946 action turned Congress into a modem institution, but subsequent proposals for reform have met with limited success. During 1973 and 1974, the Select Committee on Committees chaired by Missouri Representative Richard Bolling proposed dramatic changes in the committee system, including the total elimination of many committees and the redefinition of committee jurisdiction. Few of the changes were adopted.

Three years later, the Senate adopted many of the reforms proposed by a Senate select committee chaired by Illinois Senator Adlai Stevenson. The changes reduced the number of committees, limited the number of assignments for each senator and altered committee jurisdictions. At about the same time, a House committee chaired by Wisconsin's David Obey took another stab at the House committee system. But its package never got to the floor for a vote. Another effort to restructure the committee system flopped in the 1979-80 session.

And in 1982, Senators james Pearson and Abraham Ribicoff offered recommendations which would have cut some subcommittee staff and enforced attendance, but the Senate held brief hearings and dropped the matter without taking action. In 1985, at the recommendation of a temporary select committee chaired by then-Senator Dan Quayle, the Senate made modest reductions in the number of committees each senator was assigned to, but they later increased.

One of the more important sets of changes in House organization didn't come out of a detailed review of congressional procedures, but from actions initiated by the post-Watergate class of 1974.

The Democratic caucus, spearheaded by the freshman class, increased the authority of subcommittee chairmen and transferred the Ways and Means Committee's authority to make assignments to the party's Steering and Policy Committee, which then dumped three very senior Southern conservatives from their chairmanships. The House Democratic Caucus also took other steps to lessen the power of committee chairmen.

Fiscal Responsibility and the States

While Congress could simplify its budgeting, authorization and appropriation processes through the use of joint committees or by eliminating duplication and repetition, two more radical proposals--a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution and a line item veto--are available.

Virtually every state has statutory or constitutional provisions requiring a balanced budget, and that means state legislatures know exactly how much money they can spend. The system is so effective that at the end of FY 1992, only six states were operating in the red.

While there are many critics of a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the requirements seem to have worked well in the states.

"Our balanced budget requirement is the key to keeping our budgeting process under control. It really works," says Mike Crapo of Idaho, the former president pro tem of the Idaho Senate and now a freshman congressman.

"It's an indispensable mechanism," agrees Congressman Robert Franks, a one-time New Jersey state legislator.

Supporters of the requirement say it gives state legislators political cover with which to oppose spending, and it ultimately creates a sense of responsibility among officeholders.

While Congressman Ben Cardin, a former speaker of the Maryland House, argues that reform is needed, he takes a different approach. "The congressional budget process isn't all that terrible," he says. "The major advantage the states have is that most states follow accepted accounting principles. Congress needs a capital budgeting and accrual method of accounting."

Many states have used two other approaches to try to improve their budget processes and fiscal responsibilities. Forty-three states have given their governors some sort of line item veto authority over appropriations bills. Another 20 states approve budgets biennially rather than each year. But it is far from certain that adopting either mechanism would help Congress.

Even supporter's of the line item veto regard it primarily as a "good government" tool rather than as something that could take a big bite out of the federal deficit. And while biennial budgeting sounds as if it should promote long-term planning and avoid annual budget fights, members of Congress, who formerly served in state legislatures with biennial budgeting, say that extensive annual reviews are necessary anyway because longer range revenue and expenditure estimates are less accurate.
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Author:Rothenberg, Stuart
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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