Congressional Reform? Don't Start Snickering Yet

Don't look now, but Congress is gearing up for another of those fitful efforts to reform itself. A bipartisan group of lawmakers--led by Senators David L. Boren (D-Okla.) and Pete V. Domenici (R-N. M.), and by Representatives Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) and Willis D. Gradison (R-Ohio)--wants to hack away at the bureaucratic kudzu that entangles the Hill. "Congress is in trouble as an institution," says Boren, who wants to streamline the huge number of committees and the bloated congressional staff system that costs taxpayers $3 billion a year.

The group is pushing for a new 20-member reorganization committee--with its own budget and aides, of course--to sift through reform proposals. The initial response has been predictable: snickers in the cloakrooms. "The committee could just recommend its own dissolution," ventures one House subcommittee chairman. "That would be progress."

But while it's easy to dismiss the effort, the Hill leadership may soon see fit to embrace calls for a sweeping overhaul that would strengthen the leaders' ability to enforce discipline. Power is now diffused among committee chairmen. While the leadership doesn't want to rile the congressional barons now with public support for change, Hill sources say, it's working behind the scenes to urge on the four reformers. "There's a reasonable chance the leadership will support the group" publicly, later on, says Thomas E. Mann, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution.

Back benchers also may endorse reforms. They know their institution doesn't work anymore. The number of committees and subcommittees in the House alone has swollen to 195. Jurisdictions overlap, aggravating the already difficultgauntlet bills must survive to be enacted. Although the bank-deposit insurance fund is nearly broke, for example, a measure to replenish it is languishing as it goes through five committees.

This kind of stalemate is one reason the public holds Congress in low esteem. Lawmakers believe an overhaul could help refurbish Congress' image. But the rank and file also fear the spread of term-limitation measures, which have been approved in California, Colorado, and Oklahoma. Some 20 other states are mulling similar moves. And there's nothing like the threat of moving men to concentrate a politician's mind.

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