Cutting Congress Down to Size: How a Part-Time Congress Would Work


Cutting Congress Down to Size: How a Part-Time Congress Would Work

November 2, 1994 26 min read Download Report
Daryl Plunk
Former Senior Visiting Fellow
Daryl is a former Senior Visiting Fellow

(Archived document, may contain errors)

1009 November 2,1994 CUTIING CONGRESS DOWNTO SIZE HOW A PART CONGRESS WOULD WORK I think we spend too much time in Washington If we could spend six months here and six m onths at home, I think the country might be better off. We might be more efficient. We might get our work done. If we could really have time to go home and get our feet back on the ground and understand the problems the American people are having It is pr e tty hard to do on a weekend Senator Robert Dole INTRODUCTION Americans are convinced that lawmakers in Washington have lost touch with the people they represent. Four-fifths of Americans polled think that Congressmen lose touch with the people pretty quic k ly.2 The reason is simple: Members of Congress spend nearly all of their time in Washington, D.C. As a result, the call to return Congress to part-time status, with Memberscontinuing to live in the districts they represent, is rap idly gaining steam. Whil e most Americans are tied to their communities through the bonds of work, home, family, commerce, school, and neighborhood, most Congressmen return home only for brief, campaign-style appearances before their fellow citizens. In stead of identifying with t h eir home towns and approaching public policy problems as their former neighbors would, legislators tend to adopt a Washington mindset dominated by large bureaucracies and special-interest groups. As the federal government intrudes more and more into peopl e s lives, Congressmen spend more and more time attempting to manage it, frequently with counterproductive results, leaving even less time for reflec tion and contact with average citizens 1 2 January 26,1993, in testimony before the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress. S. Hrg. 103-10 Survey by ABC NewstWashington Post, March 25-27,1994 pp. 55-56.

Congress needs radical change to sever the links that bind full-time career Congress men to an increasingly intrusive and unaccountable federal bureaucracy In order to be of their communities and not justfrom them, federal lawmakers need to spend real tim e live real lives, and have real jobs in the communities they represent In addition to their growing interest in limiting the number of terms Congressmen can serve, Americans are taking an increasingly serious look at limiting the amount of time congressme n spend in Washington in any given year. Former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexanders call to cut their pay and send them home has encapsulated the widespread view that restoring a citizen-legislature is central to cleaning up the mess in Washington. Many of Con gresss problems flow directly from the growth of the institution Congress is too big, too expensive, and too cumbersome Congress continues to expand the number of laws it makes and the scope of its authority IES Congress avoids responsibility by deleg a ting difficult choices to unelected bureaucrats; and Congress is insulated from and resistant to popular opinion Making Congress a part-time legislature would d Force Congress to make decisions, set priorities, and pass responsible legisla d Encourage Con g ress to set realistic legislative priorities d Shrink the size and the budget of the federal government; and d Keep lawmakers in touch with their constituents and Congress in touch with tion; the real world. v Like term limits, a part-time,Congress is an i dea that is likely to gather support. The concept directly addresses voters legitimate public concerns about the estrangement of their elected representatives. Like term limits, its only real opponents are inside the Belt way. The reflexive argument again s t limiting Congress is the easily dismissed claim that Congress acts as a brake on the expansion and power of the federal government. And like term limits, a part-time Congress is a serious proposal that promises better and more representative government. The historical experience of state governments with part-time legislatures strongly suggests that permitting lawmakers to go home for some part of the year will reduce pressures for government spending A PARADOX CONGRESS DOES MORE BUT IS RESPECTED LESS Co n gresss approval ratings are at historic lows. As of August 1994, only 14 percent of the public generally ap roved of the job Congress is doing-a significant drop from 24 percent two years ago. When the public is asked to rate the honesty and ethical stand ards of 26 different occupations, Congressmen fall 25th on the list, ranking only ahead of car salesmen. In the past four years, the number of people who believe Congressmen s 4 2 have high ethical standards has shrunk by more than half. Contrary to a com m on congres sional diagnosis-that people would appreciate Congress more if they only knew more about what Congressmen do-declining public esteem has coincided with increasing knowledge about Congress through C-SPAN and other media In fact, polls show that disapproval of Congress increases with citizens knowledge about what Congress does?

Rather than face reality, Congressmen have responded with public relations efforts. The Senate alone employs nearly 200 aides whose primary job is to drum up favorable medi a coverage for their employers. Congress has attempted to improve its image by means of cosmetic fixes, ranging from eliminating the signs at National Airport that designated free parking spaces for Congressmen to creating a special committee that ultimat e ly failed in its mission of producing reform legislation. The ineffectiveness of these at tempts suggests that Congresss declining reputation is not simply a failure of public. rela tions; Congress must change the way it works in order to recapture public respect. Mak ing Congress part-time would ameliorate many of its most pressing problems Congress is too big. The 103rd Congresss yearly budget was nearly $2.3 billion6-over 8.5 million per Congressman. Every day the 103rd Congress was in session, its oper a tions cost over 15.8 million. Be tween 1946 and 1992, Congress in creased its own budget by over 4000 percent while the consumer price index grew by 618.5 percent In other words, less than 15 percent of the growth in Con gresss budget can be explained by in flation? some Congressmen point to increases in overall govern Drowning in Paper: While Number of Bills Has Dropped, Pages of Legislation have Skyrocketed Number of Public Bills I ment spending as an excuse for congressional growth, forgetting that it is Congress that determines spending for the rest of the government not the other way around. As recently as the mid-1960s, Congresss operating costs were less than one-ninth of what they are today 3 4 5 6 7 Associated Press poll, August 26-30, 1994.

CNNIUSA ToahylGallup Poll, September 23-25, 1994.

American Talk Issues poll, January 1994.

This figure is derived from the average of the legislative branch appropriations bills for FY 1993 and 1994.

Norman J. Ornstein, Thomas E. Mann, and Michael J. Malbin, Viral Srarisrics on Congress 1993-1994 Washington, D.C Congressional Quarterly, 1993 p. 124 3 Congress currently employs nearly 40,000 people. Over half work directly in the House or Senate; the rest are employed by Congresss research agencies or as supp o rt staff such as barbers, parking attendants, and building and plant maintenance person nel. Since World War 11, House and Senate personal staffs have increased more than fivefold and sixfold, respectively. House and Senate committee staffs have increased twelvefold and fourfold, respectively, with the most dramatic increases occurring in the 1970~9 Congressional staff has grown more than twice as fast as the number of federal government employees since World War II. Although the trend of continual expansi o n has levelled off, the number of legislative staffers is very large by any stand ard: the United States Congress has more staff than any other legislature in the world with five legislative staffers for every one employed by the second-largest (the Cana dian Parliament).

Legislative leaders from both parties have called for sizable congressional staff cuts.

Senator David Boren (D-OK) advocated a cut of 25 percent. Many congressional Re publicans have called for cuts of one-third in committee staff. Bill Clinton endorsed a 25 percent staff cut during his 1992 campaign, and George Bush endorsed a one-third cut. A large legislative staff creates its own agenda and makes its own decisions-deci sions properly made only by democratically elected lawmakers. The larger the staff the more likely it is to create more work for its ostensible employers and to propose new ventures. Former Senator Walter Mondale (D-MN) has described the pressures an overstaffed legislator faces: I felt so for them, so I would try to wo rk with them.

Pretty soon I was working for them. But a large congressional staff represents more than a threat to representative self-governance. The more public resources Congress has at its disposal, the more ways Congressmen can devise to use staff and funds for private electoral purposes. Hundreds of staffers, for instance, spend the bulk of their workday writing and sending hundreds of millions of franked letters yearly, which serve effectively as campaign mailings for incumbents. Furthermore, the vo lunteer campaign work that many congressional staffers perform inevitably contributes to the record reelection rates enjoyed by incumbents over the last decade.

Congress produces bad legislation in quantity. Tremendous growth in staff has coin cided with a malfunctioning legislative process. Detailed, thousand-page legislative packages are written entirely by staffers and presented to lawmakers for an up-or down vote which they often are forced to cast without time to read the bill. Over the past thirty ye a rs (the 88th to 102d Congresses the number of public bills Congress has passed has remained roughly constant, but each bills average length has quadru pled.12 Growth in Congresss production of statutes also has spawned a proportionate increase in regulati o n. The number of pages added yearly to the Federal Register quad rupled between 1969 and 1979 and, although the Reagan Administrations emphasis on deregulation held down regulatory growth, began to grow again in the late 198Os.l3 8 Y 8 9 Thomas W. Reed an d Bradley J. Cameron, Above the Law (Washington, D.C Employment Policy Foundation 1994 p. xxii.

Ornstein et al Vital Statistics on Congress 1993-1994, pp. 121-124 10 11 S. Hrg. 103-10, p. 87.

S. Hrg. 103-158, p. 7 12 Ornstein et al Viral Staristics on Con gress 1993-1994, table 6-4 4 The trend toward increasingly complex legislative packages is illustrated by Con gresss periodic re view of federal high way programs. The first federal highway act, passed in 1956 was less than one tenth the length of the hig hway funding bill Congress passed in 199

1. The legisla tive package contain ing President Clin tons 1993 tax US. Congress Personal and Commlttee Staffing: 1891-1991 0 0 Senate Personal Staff 1891 1901 1911 1921 1931 1941 1951 1961 1971 1981 1991 sourre: vital Srotirncs on corrgress I 993- 1994, p. I 28 changes measured over 3,000 pages. Legislative procedures for both the 1991 highway bill and the 1993 tax legislation allowed lawmakers only a few hours to scrutinize them before a vote on passage occurred . This Congresss crime bill totalled over 1,100 pages by the time it emerged from conference committee. Having acquired an addi tional $10 billion of spending between its Senate version and the initial conference product, it was full of special-interest ha n douts to big city mayors arts and dance teachers, gender sensitivity trainers, and the notorious midnight basketball program Congress ducks responsibility through delegation. Despite this level of detail, Con gress often ducks controversial questions by w r iting vague or contradictory directives which leave difficult choices to federal bureaucrats. When bureaucrats make the un popular choices foisted upon them, individual Congressmen pretend to protest, claim ing credit for standing up for their constituent s New York Law School Professor David Schoenbrod describes how Congress has delegated such varied matters as the length of prison sentences, health and safety regulations, railroad fares, shipping fees environmental and agricultural standards, and even its own pay to federal bureau crat Former Representative James Florio (D-NJ) has explained how he enlisted leg islative allies by fuzzing over politically controversial provisions of legislation he fa- vored: In order to come to agreement one consciously stri v es for ambiguity in or der to get people tosign on to thing When Congress hands its lawmaking respon sibility over to unelected officials, it erodes accountability and democracy, since voters are unable to hold lawmakers responsible for choices they avoid making 13 Ibid table 6-5 14 David Schoenbrod. Power Without Responsibility: How Congress Abuses the People Through Delegation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993 See also Eric Felten, The Ruling Class: Inside the Imperial Congress Washington, D.C Regn e ry Gateway, 1993 15 Schoenbrod, Power Without Responsibility, p. 92 5 Delegation also permits legislators to evade blame while garnering undeserved credit. They can, for instance, claim credit for passing legislation while finding fault with or even attac k ing its bureaucratic implementation. They can even pose as compas sionate public servants fighting impersonal government bureaucrats when, in fact, Con gress created the bureaucracy and supplied its voluminous but vague instructions in the first place. Le g islators strategic use of this good cophad cop ploy results in poor pub lic policy and systematically misleads constituents. Over a third of personal congres sional staffers are employed in constituent service casework. Instead of attempting to make the g o vernment work better, they are assigned to solve problems one at a time making bad government politically profitable for individual Congressmen. This is a prime reason why a large and powerful Congress will never reduce the size of the fed eral bureaucrac y job, legislators lose touch with the real world. Congressional aides, whose primary job is to make life easier for their boss, attempt to make their employers life as frictionless as possible. Congressmen live in Washington, not their districts; they sho p in Washing ton, raise their families in. Washington, educate their children in Washington; they make new friends in and acquire the values of Washington. The culture that legislators formerly shared with their neighbors back home gradually becomes suppla n ted by one composed primarily of government employees and government supplicants. Journeys back to states or districts necessarily are devoted to hurried appearances designed to ad vertise the lawmakers local presence to as many voters as possible. Few Co n gressmen continue to live among their constituents; once they are elected to represent a commu nity in Congress, any continuing, organic connection to that community is severed Congress misreads public opinion. Because lawmakers separated from the everyda y life of their cogununity cannot accurately measure sentiment on public issues there they frequently engage in ham-handed missteps driven by poll data. Legislators have little direct ability to gauge the lifespan or intensity of their constituents concern s and frequently overreact to national polls. The crime bill, for instance, was less a rational at tempt to deal with the crime problems that Americans face today than a symbolic af firmation that Congress cared about what polls had identified as voters to p concern.

Although 30 billion is a high price to pay for a symbolic gesture, it is modest com pared to Clinton-style health care reform-a trillion-dollar-a-year program many legis lators supported until they were able to spend time with constituents over the summer recess, whereupon they abruptly retreated Congress resists public opinion. While Congressmen want to appear responsive to pub lic concerns, the legislative process they have designed is well insulated from genuine public input. That lumbering process sent the Clinton health reform plan to 32 commit tees and subcommittees. Although such varied scrutiny would appear to provide for in put from numerous sources, it actually permitted the House and Senate leadership to assemble a plan in private from elements o f various proposals. The Clinton Administra tions secrecy in designing legislation continued on Capitol Hill, where three of the most significant congressional committees handling health care reform-Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means in the House,and F i nance in the Senate-held closed-door meetings to draft their plans. Another version of the Clinton plan made it through the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee only when Members Congress is and cannot help being out of touch. When legislating is a full-time I 6 agreed to delegate such decisions as what benefits packages would contain and whether to impose price controls to a newly created federal bureaucracy.

Legislators made it clear that they wanted anything that could pass both Houses of Congress and make it into a conference committee, where the real legislation would be written. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) noted during one Finance Committee markup of legislation, I strongly oppose this, and Im going to vote for it because it seems the only w a y were going to get to the floor In the face of growing public op position to further federal intervention in health care, one new plan after another was crafted behind closed doors. The trend reached its apex in August as Senate Majority Leader George Mi t chell (D-ME) offered three distinct versions of his 1,400-page plan in one week, the better to give lawmakers little or no time to read them before a vote could be called In all of this legislative turmoil-which eventually ended in utter fail ure, as publ ic opinion coalesced against major changes in the nations health care sys tem-there was little time for deliberation or compromise, and even less for surveying the opinions of constituents who were not members of concentrated special-interest groups.

Some lawmakers viewed public opinion on particular questions of policy as essen tially irrelevant. Senator Rockefeller, for instance, volunteered his intent to ush through health care reform regardless of the views of the American people. Occa sionally, public opinion was even a force to be fought and defeated In meetings of the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress-the committee designated to write legislation to reform Congress itself-legislators characterized public anger towards Congress as an imp e diment produced by unsophisticated public knowledge of legisla tive realities, rather than as an ally for change. One Senator suggested that if constitu ents could spend some time with lawmakers on the job, the publics negative views would dissipate as th e y understood how tough it is to be a Congressman. I am not sure, Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) suggested, [that] what the American people seem to be mad at us about has anything to do with what we are trying to fix. It is be cause of innumerable instances o f congressional resistance to public opinion that even though more and more public resources are devoted to burnishing the image of Congress and its members-congressional approval ratings and the very legitimacy of the institution continue to erode THE SO L UTION CUT THEIR PAY AND SEND THEM HOME A part-time Congress would limit legislative sessions to no more than six months per year (perhaps for three months in the winter and another three months in the fall Sala ries would be cut in half-to roughly 65,000 a year-although legislators would be per mitted to undertake outside employment when Congress was out of session as long as they fully disclosed all outside income 16 Associated Press, Senator Skipping Specifics, Charleston (West Virginia) Daily Mail. Apri l 19, 1994, p. 7A 7 Congress determines the length of its own sessions (and sets its own pay) and therefore could act to limit its calendar In fact, until the early 1960s, Congress often met only about six months per year, frequently finishing its business by the middle of June. Even today, Congresss schedule is essentially part-time-especially in the House, where three-day workweeks consume most of the year. During the Congress that just ended, the House met for a total of 264 days. Two years of six-month sessions would require hardly any compression in this schedule: a part-time Congress in session for two years of 26 five-day workweeks would result in 260 legislative days.

Congress might implement session limits by returning to the traditional schedule of meeting from January through June. Governor Alexander has proposed another alterna tive: a three-month session in the spring to consider authorization legislation followed by a fall session, roughly from Labor Day to Thanksgiving, to consider spending ma tters.

The split session concept is attractive, since it would encourage greater attention to non spending matters than is practical under the current budget-driven legislative calendar.

The plan might also encourage greater budget cooperation between the Congress and the President by allowing Congress to pass an overall budget resolution in the spring (possi bly signed by the President) and then conduct a line-item review of the Presidents appro priations requests in the fall. Since the overall requireme n ts would match the already ap proved budget resolution, no presidential budget would be declared dead on arrival, as has happened in the past. Instead, Congress and the President would be forced to cooper ate and compromise on major issues earlier in the process.

Postponing final appropriations action to the fall would require adjusting the start of the fiscal year (currently October l), a step which was taken once before in 19

72. The election calendar poses a more difficult problem, however, since bienn ial congressional elections would occur in the middle of the proposed fall sessions A part-time Congress would discourage legislators from responding reflexively to all of the nations problems with more federal legislation. It would also permit legislator s again to become part of their communities, where they would live, work, shop, worship and send their children to school, thus bringing them into regular contact with the con cerns of the citizens they represent. It would make them more sensitive to the r a w injus tices that previous Congresses have committed, such as passing one set of laws that ap plies to Congress and another that applies to the rest of the country. It would create op portunities for lawmakers to economize by reducing unnecessary staff. It would force them to set priorities and avoid overregulation caused by overlong, baroque legislation.

Perhaps most important, it would provide for a more accurate reading of public opinion than lawmakers now are able to make.

Part-time service would als o complement other popular and important congressional reforms r/ Staff cuts, franking cuts, and expense cuts. In the absence of a full-time Con gress, many of the tens of thousands of aides who help run the federal legisla ture will become irrelevant to i ts work. While there have been tentative attempts to cut staff in the 103rd Congress, a 25 percent staff cut remains a reasonable goal even with a full-time legislature. Even larger staff cuts-on the order of 50 percent-would be appropriate with a part-ti m e Congress. Many of the remain ing staff could be part-time employees as well. Furthermore, the cost of the con 8 gressional frank-which provides over $160,000 for each Member of Congress for mailing costs and is often used to fund campaign-style direct m ail to every resident in incumbents legislative districts-could be sharply reduced: face-to face contacts could replace written communiques from the distant federal city.

Finally, such other perks as travel allowances could be cut, since the year-round jou rneys back and forth from Washington that a full-time Congress demands would no longer be necessary d Shifting responsibility from bureaucrats to elected legislators. Knowing that they would not be in Washington year-round would make legislators less will i ng to delegate broad powers to bureaucrats. Part-time residence in Washing ton coupled with the experience of living with federal laws and regulations in a private capacity would make the band-aid approach of casework less attractive and Congressmen more l ikely to address tough issues directly. Congress would have to take more responsibility for the regulatory actions of the federal govern ment, instead of as happens now) opportunistically attacking decisions of the bureaucracies Congress itself has create d . The result would be shorter, simpler clearer legislation that Members actually could read, understand, and explain and for which they could be held accountable. This change would also make staff cuts in regulatory agencies both possible and likely d Set t ing priorities and shifting locally sensitive decisions from federal to state government. Compressing the legislative schedule and shifting responsi bility to Congress-if no other reforms are made-could increase the legisla tive workload. The solution is n ot to come up with more ways to make elected officials less accountable for government decisions, but to narrow the scope of federal decision-making. A Congress with narrower jurisdiction would be more deliberate in setting legislative priorities. A legis l ature that was both more care ful and more deliberate than todays full-time Congress would see its influence grow rather than shrink relative to the executive branch. Further, the overall scope and power of the federal government, of which Congress is the source would likely shrink. In cases where states or local communities are better equipped to make diverse decisions, the federal government might simply stand aside. Decisions on such matters as law enforcement, education, and welfare often are better ma d e by those more familiar with local circumstances. Downsiz ing the federal government would foster a healthy competition, allowing states and communities to experiment with diverse policies and with measuring their relative successes and failures d Term l i mits and other reforms. A part-time legislature would work in tandem with, and would be a natural outgrowth of, term limits. Politicians aware that they could not make a lifetime career out of service in Congress would be eager to maintain ties-and reside n ces-in their home towns. Limited sessions would also fit in naturally with a balanced budget amendment and other limits on congressional spending powers d Limiting government. The ultimate goal of a part-time legislature, however, is to help shrink the fe d eral government. Limiting congressional sessions would force legislators to distinguish between situations where federal legislation was 9 demanded and those where problems could be solved in other fashions. Para doxically, forcing Congressmen to confine t hemselves to their top priorities would strengthen Congress: legislative attention would be more focused, while its authority and product would be taken more seriously. Such a reform would also enhance congressional accountability and legitimacy: rather t h an spend its time delegating responsibility to bureaucracies and overseeing their actions Congress would assume the responsibility for legislating, a duty it has made a habit of avoiding SUPPORT FOR A PART-TIME CONGRESS The common-sense idea that longer l e gislative sessions produce larger, more intrusive government received support in a 1988 paper by Professors Mwangi Kimen i of the Uni versity of Connecticut and Robert D. Tollison of George Mason University Kimenyi and Tollison demonstrate that-over a spa n of 35 years-the more time Congress spends in session, the longer and more complex the legislation enacted. Because there is some correlation between the number of bills passed and the aggregate money Congress spends, Kimenyi and Tollison argue that the l o nger Congress is in session, the larger the level of government spending in the next period. Such findings suggest that, in addition to producing better legislation, a part-time Congress would be more prudent with the pub lics money would tax and spend le s s. The nine states with full-time legislatures-California, Illinois Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin all rank near the top of the list of states with the highest per capita spending and tax bur dens. On the o ther hand, Texas-now the second-largest state in the Union-manages to get by with a part-time legislature and falls 43rd out of 50 when ranked by state per cap ita spending. The National Conference of State Legislatures divides state legislatures into thr e e categories: part-time assemblies with small staffs, full-time legislatures with large staffs, and combination or hybrid legislatures. l8 The difference in per capita spending is striking: part-time le islatures, on average, spend nearly 500 less yearly t han their full-time counterparts As Mike Kelly of the Colorado-based Center for the New West has noted, the eleven lowest-taxed states all limit their legislatures to meetings of 90 days per year or less If establishing a part-time Congress caused federal spending to drop by the same proportion of nearly 13 percent, Congress would spend $187 billion less than FY 1995s estimated $1.53 trillion in spending. Although other factors may play a role in the spending differences between part-time and full-time sta t e legislatures, the striking re lationship between the degree of state legislative professionalism and overall state spend ing suggests a fruitful avenue for further study Evidence from state governments also suggests that a part-time federal legislature 1 7 Mwangi Kimenyi and Robert D.Tollison, The Length of Legislative Sessions and the Growth of Government unpublished paper on file at the Center for Study of Public Choice, George Mason University 18 This conventional threefold classification of state legi slatures derives from the work of Karl Kurtz, Director of State Services, National Conference of State Legislatures 19 These calculations are based on 1991 figures, which are in the most rknt available edition of Sign

cant Features of Fiscal Federalism, Vo lume 2: Revenues and Expenditures, Table 80, pp. 156-157 10 Among lawmakers, former Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee has consistently advo cated the idea of a part-time Congress in recent years. Although politicians are naturally wary of supporting measu r es that might diminish their powers, Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Bob Dole (R-KS) have endorsed the idea as have Republican Senate candidates Oliver North of Virginia and Fred Thompson of Tennessee. Several House candidates, including Democrat Michael Harmless of Indiana, also have endorsed it. Lamar Alexander has made the idea central to his potential presidential campai n and Ultimately, the most relevant opinion is that of the American people, 76 percent of whom agree that Congresss pay shou l d be cut in half and they should spend six months of the year back home with their constituents.21 Only 18 percent of those polled disagree with that statement. This lopsided level of public approval towers above voter sentiment for almost every other ref o rm proposal reports that it brings smiles, then applause, then voters rising from their chairs 3 COMMON ARGUMENTS USED AGAINST A PART-TIME CONGRESS ARGUMENT #1: A part-time Congress would only shift power to the rest of the federal government gress is out of session, the center of gravity in Washington will shift for that time to other ongoing and continuing institutions and individuals.22 When House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-GA) was asked whether he favored Lamar Alexanders pro posal for a part-time Congress, he responded less delicate1 Does he really think a Washington totally dominated by Clinton is a safe place?

Such arguments prove too much. If taken seriously, they imply that any attempt to reduce the size or activity of government is futile and can result only in another one of its branches seizing control. In fact, a part-time Congress will reduce both the size of the entire government and its influence over citizens lives. Limiting congressional ac tivity can make power flow to the people, not just to another government office.

Reforms designed to preserve the constitutional balance of powers, in addition to working naturally with session limits, would avoid the concentration of power in the executive branch against which Representative Gingrich warns. At a minimum, these reform s include Prominent Washington analyst Norman Ornstein argues that, when a part-time Con 13 20 Lamar Alexander, Cut Your Pay and Go Home, Roll Call, August 8,1994, p. 28 21 Tim Curran, Survey Shows Most Americans Agree: Cut Their Pay and Send Them Home, Ro ll Cull, October 6 1994, p. 5 22 Norman J. Omstein, Part-Time Congress Would Be Worthless in a Full-Time World, Roll Call, August 15, 1994 p. 14 23 Gerald F. Seib, Alexander Sings Popular Tune: Chop Congress, The Wall Sfreef Journal, September 7, 1994, p.

A16 11 m Reduction of congressional delegation of legislative powers to federal I~T Reassignment of federal activities to the states; and bureaucracies Restructuring sessions to force lawmakers to set legislative priorities.

These reforms would diminish a nd decentralize federal political power In the long run, cutting Congress down to size in this fashion would address concerns about an un bounded legislature and about an imperial executive. The argument that an overactive executive can be reined in only b y an equally active Congress is fundamentally at vari ance with the American constitutional tradition, which provides for competition within the context of limited powers. New limitations on government power are needed, but a full-time Congress is unlikel y to enact them ARGUMENT #2: Part-time federal legislators who depend on outside employment and income could fall prey to conflicts of interest, or even to corruption Other critics of a part-time Congress suggest that special-interest groups eager to in fl uence legislators could funnel gifts to them in the guise of an employment check. But this problem would be handled the same way it is handled in part-time state legisla tures across the country: by full disclosure.

Journalists who noticed that a lawmaker doubling as a part-time industry executive seemed to be bending over backwards to pass laws favorable to his employer could call attention to any signs of corruption or conflict of interest. Constituents concerned that their lawmakers disclosed income see m ed too large for the job he professed to be doing could easily vote him out of office. Freedom from legislative corruption always relies on a vigilant public. In any case, the opportunity that part-time service gave law makers to practice their real jobs would ensure that, instead of being wedded to govern ment, they remained in touch with the difficulties private citizens face in jobs involv ing the exchange of goods and services.

Ultimately, the downsizing of government that a part-time Congress would br ing and the decentralization of power that shrinking congressional delegation and restoring state legislative authority would entail, would create the best bulwark against corrup tion. Since legislators would have less authority and fewer opportunities to redistribute resources through the legislative process, the possibilities of corruption would dimin ish significantly ARGUMENT #3: A part-time federal legislature would be forced into de facto full time status by the constant crush of emergencies and miss e d end-of-session deadlines Norman Ornstein, arguing against a part-time Congress, provides this parade of hy pothetical crises: What will happen if Congress is a non-institution for half of the year? First, events in the rest of the world will go on. Stoc k market crashes, California earthquakes, Florida hurricanes, international trade agreements, currency crises, the sudden death of a Supreme Court Justice, the resignation of a Cabinet officer, will oc cur.24 Ornstein argues that a full-time Congress is vi t al to react rapidly to such emer gencies. One wonders how the country manages in the last quarter of every even-num bered year, when Congress routinely takes a three-month hiatus 12 In any case, the appropriateness of reactive government assumed by this a r gument is startling. Surely, a more rational way to cope with disaster-stricken areas in California or Florida is for lawmakers to plan ahead by establishing a disaster relief fund-to be doled out as needed-as part of a larger budget. In fact, lawmakers p r efer to wait until disasters occur, not because that system is better for disaster victims (it clearly is not but because post-disaster actions provide high-profile opportunities for conspicuous compassion as well as a convenient excuse to violate budget r ules. The specter of Con gress attempting to repair a stock market crash or a currency crisis by crafting a hasty politically driven solution will cheer few observers and may even be enough to drive some investors out of the market. Many foreign policy cr i ses are foreshadowed months before any U.S. action occurs: for example, American intervention in Haiti was dis cussed publicly by Administration spokesmen as far back as June 1994, more than three months before U.S. forces were launched, but a full-time C ongress failed to mus ter the will to issue a declaration until after American troops already were in Haiti.

Congress-and, more particularly, the Senate-must exercise its role in the confir mation of presidential appointments, but recent history suggests t hat a Congress whose members worked in the private sector for six months every year would slow down ap pointments only slightly Three of the last four Supreme Court appointments required on average, nearly three months for confirmation, measuring from the day of the nomi nees announcement to the day of his or her approval by the SenateF5 Measured against the improvements that a Congress which was less reactive and more contempla tive would bring to the country, a few weeks slower pace in federal appointmen ts seems a small price to pay. One-day special sessions on occasional Saturdays for im portant confirmations are another possible option.

A related argument often made by opponents of a part-time legislature is that Con gress would resort to deadline-relat ed games of legislative chicken as the end of a session neared. State legislatures deal with this problem all the time, most typically by ensuring that their most important legislation is passed on schedule; Congress could learn to do this as well. Imposi ng stricter deadlines could force Congress to play fewer games and act in a more decisive and timely fashion on genuinely needed legislation.

It is noteworthy that many of the major, controversial legislative battles for which the 103rd Congress will be re membered-health care, congressional reform, lobbying re strictions, and campaign finance-were delayed by the congressional leadership to the very end .of the two-year calendar, making concerted action by opponents to block these bills all the easier.

Spec ial sessions for legitimate national emergencies, of course, occasionally would be needed in particular, Congress might have to declare a state of war. But national emergencies will be the exception, rather than the rule-and making a declaration of war sl i ghtly inconvenient is at worst a mixed blessing. When Lamar Alexander was asked how lawmakers could deal with such an emergency when Congress was out of session, he correctly responded: Well, we have airplanes They could be called back 24 Omstein, Part-Ti m e Congress, op. ci 25 Office of the Curator, U.S. Supreme Court 13 CONCLUSION Advocates and opponents of a part-time Congress agree that the reform would create major changes in the American system of government. Most of these changes would be improvement s . Lawmakers no longer would find themselves in the position of former Senator George McGovem D-SD who-having tried (and failed) to succeed in small business after nearly two decades as a full-time legislator-lamented: I wish I had known a little more abou t the problems of the private sector I have to pay taxes, meet a payroll-I wish I had a better sense of what it took to do that when I was in Washing ton.27 Instead of growing more and more attuned to a federal culture which views con stituents as nuisance s to be placated and government intervention as the first solution to every problem, representatives would remain citizens and residents of the districts which originally sent them to Congress. Instead of passing decisions to unelected bureaucrats lawmaker s would hold onto the responsibility themselves or, when appropriate, leave matters up to states, communities, families, and individuals. Instead of overreacting to public opinion, lawmakers would be its authentic representatives. Instead of overseeing a g i gantic legislative bureaucracy which creates bureaucratic ,solutions to the nations prob lems, lawmakers would work in a Congress cut down to size. Instead of enacting new laws so rapidly that most lack the time to read them, lawmakers would find themselv es with the freedom to set legislative priorities. The Founders dream of a council of citizen legislators would be reborn; Americans would have a Congress that truly represents America.

Dan Greenberg Congressional Analyst U. S. Congress Assessment Project 26 Crossfire, September 7,1994, LEXIS/NEXIS transcript 27 John H. Fund, Term Limitation: An Idea WhoseTime Has Come, Cat0 Institute Policy Analysis No. 141, October 30, 1990 14


Daryl Plunk

Former Senior Visiting Fellow