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Of Mavericks and Raiders: Studying the Process-Policy Nexus

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This is the first in what will be a bimonthly column on procedural politics. My goal is to explain and hopefully demystify some of the arcane procedures by which Congress and its committees operate. In each column, I will highlight one of the current procedural devices or controversies in the news, unwrap it in simple English and place it in some historical context.

I take as the text for this column the words of the late Rep. Bill Steiger (R-Wis.), who regularly reminded his colleagues that "procedure is substance." Some Members would scratch their heads in puzzlement at this seeming exaggeration. Others would nod their heads in silent agreement, fully understanding the vital nexus between process and policy. Those who got it joined Steiger in pressing for procedural changes in the late 1960s and early '70s.

I am reminded of that era as Capitol Hill experiences an early spring this year: Myriad Congressional reform proposals are sprouting like a Wordsworthian field of daffodils. Members of both parties are scrambling to introduce measures to reform ethics rules, lobbying, the budget process, earmarks, campaign finance regulations and the legislative process in general. It is a bipartisan outpouring of good intentions designed to help restore not only the institution to its rightful place in our constitutional order and but also public confidence in Congress.

I was confronted with a similar range of reform options when I first came to Congress in 1965 as an intern for my Representative, John Anderson (R-Ill.). One of my duties was to monitor the hearings of the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress and to help prepare testimony for Anderson to deliver before the panel. I quickly realized there were two distinct groups of Congressional reformers that nevertheless shared some common ground.

The liberal Democratic Study Group, originally dubbed "McCarthy's Mavericks" after its founder, then-Rep. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.), was interested primarily in breaking the stranglehold Southern Democrats had on committee chairmanships and legislative scheduling in order to pave the way for more progressive domestic legislation. They saw three principal obstacles to that goal: the seniority system that automatically elevated the longest-serving Members to chairmanships; a House Rules Committee dominated by a conservative coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans; and the Senate filibuster that allowed one-third of the body's Members to talk a bill to death.

Republican reformers, on the other hand, were more concerned about the domination of Congress by the president and executive branch, especially in 1964-65 when President Lyndon Johnson was ramming his "Great Society" legislation through what the GOP charged was a "rubber-stamp Congress." The only significant partisan internal reform Republicans were pushing at the time was to give the minority party a more equitable share of committee staff.

Although the reform bill reported by the joint committee in 1966 passed the Senate in 1967, it remained dormant in the House for the next two years due to resistance from senior House Members, especially committee chairmen, over a proposed "committee bill of rights" aimed at permitting committee majorities to circumvent recalcitrant chairmen in scheduling legislation.

Incensed by the lack of action on reform, freshman Rep. Steiger and other Republican backbenchers, led by third-term Rep. Donald Rumsfeld of Illinois, joined forces in 1967-68 to dislodge the reform package from the Rules Committee. The group, known as "Rummy's Raiders," engaged in various parliamentary maneuvers to call attention to their cause and keep Congress in session until it voted to reform itself. When Congress eventually adjourned anyway without acting on reform, Rumsfeld lamented, "Congressional reform is an issue without a constituency."

A month after I returned to the Hill to work full-time for Anderson in early 1969, the joint committee's reform measure was jump-started in the Rules panel with the appointment of a special subcommittee to revise the legislation.

Behind the revival were Democratic liberals who had grown disillusioned with Johnson over Vietnam and the emerging "imperial presidency," and the election of a Republican president gave them a new appreciation for the need to restore Congress as a coequal branch. Besides, the seniority system was still around.

The revised reform bill was reported from the Rules Committee in the spring of 1970. The old DSG-GOP reform coalition reunited to offer 10 floor amendments, nine of which were adopted.

Most were designed to bring greater transparency to Congress. One would guarantee the minority one-third of committee staff resources (though it would be repealed by the Democratic Caucus in the House rules resolution at the beginning of the next Congress).

The six-year reform saga set the stage for the culmination of the Congressional revolution against committee government in the early 1970s and the ensuing post-reform Congresses of the '80s and '90s in which Members sought to concentrate more authority in their party leadership to offset the decline of committee power.

That is the institution today's Congress inherited from the past century, one which some are now claiming is not suited for the 21st century and is in need of a new round of reforms.

Eric Shickler, a Harvard political scientist and author of Disjointed Pluralism, concludes that institutional change is shaped by a multiplicity of interests and forces. This has enabled Congress to remain amazingly adaptable over time. But it is also the source of great frustration to Members because the mixed motivations for change lead to mixed (or failed) results, unintended consequences and eventually new calls for "real reform," since no one is ever satisfied. It is an endless cycle that both benefits and hinders Congress simultaneously. It also makes the politics of process and procedure an endless and riveting topic for speculation and discussion.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.


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