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Lecture #406

September 11, 1992

Why Congress Doesn't Work, Part I

By


(Archived document, may contain errors)

Why Congress Doesn't Work

By Representative Christopher Cox It is certainly a privilege to be addressing people here at Heritage as a member of Congress; in fact, it is a privilege to be addressing anybody as a member of Congress. W e don't get a warm welcome in too many places these days. And that is because, frankly, the reputation of Congress as an institution has suffered greatly in recent years. Congress has always been the butt of jokes. Mark Twain said that America has no nati v e criminal class, except for Congress. So the twenti- eth century isn't distinguished from the nineteenth in that respect. But what we do know is that since we began measuring public opinion in America, Congress has never fared more poorly than at this mo m ent in'1992. It is at an all-time low in the esteem of the American people, so much so that a total of 1 percent, far below the sample in a recent poll published in the Wall StreetJournal, said that they trusted Congress to do the right thing most of the time. That is very sad.

Why is it that Congress has slipped so much in the estimation of the American people? I think it is because Congress has failed in its signal responsibility to the taxpayers to control the purse strings in our constitutional system. If it is not in the act of declaring war, the greatest responsibil- ity of the Congress, as the appropriating branch of the government, is to control the purse strings. We can measure whether Congress is doing a good job or not in that respect. In the cu r rent year, it is estimated that we will have a $400 billion shortfall-adding to the national debt of around $4 trillion. That stunningly large amount is more than the entire budget of the United States of just a few years ago, and the interest carried on t hat large amount is now so great that it has be- come the number one entitlement program in government spending. Last year, a year when America was at war, interest on the national debt surpassed even the defense budget as the num- ber one category of spe n ding. Congress's inability to get spending under control is very directly related to the way Congress runs itself. The scandals that we have witnessed with the House Bank and the House Post Office revolve around money-mishandling of money and abuse of the privilege that comes with being a fiduciary with control over other people's money. The President has gotten some mileage out of saying that Congress can't even manage a -tiny bank. That is funny, but it is true. Congress, likewise, has shown an inability to manage an over one-and-a-half trillion dollar budget of the United States government. Staff Explosion. A long time ago, thirty years ago, Congress didn't have nearly the staff that it has now. I have spoken with some of my predecessors in office who ha v e reminded me of the days that they started out serving when they had just a few staffers to help answer the mail. It wouldn't occur to them to finance all of the mail. And of course, on the other side of the Atlan- tic, in Parliament they use pre-printed post cards that say, "Receipt of your correspondence is acknowledged." They don't try to answer every single letter that regularly comes from a half mil- lion people. That correspondence consumes an enonnous amount of time, and that is to what our persona l staff now devotes its attention-answering mail and handling casework for our constitu- ents. That is a new function; and frankly, as an individual member of Congress, I cannot ignore

Representative Cox, a Republican, represents the 40th district of California in the U.S. House of Representatives. He spoke at The Heritage Foundation on June 25,1992. ISSN 0272-1155. 01992 by The Heritage Foundation.

that function. I would do so at my peril, because all of my colleagues, both Republican and Dem- ocrat, are performing those services, and constituents have come to expect them. The personal staff is the tip of the iceberg. It is the same for every member, Republican and Democrat We don't have more staff in John Dingell's personal office than in Chris Cox's. B u t there is something else called committee staff. That is where we begin to find that the bodies are buried. Committee staff is under the exclusive control of Committee Chairs. Committee Chairs are able to stack those committees, sometimes greater than te n to one in favor of their party. I serve as the Ranking Republican on Government Activities and Transportation. As the Ranking Republican, I get one staff member; the Democrat Chair, Barbara Boxer, gets five. That is the staff ratio on that Committee. I a m sure that if it were a larger committee it would be even worse. We have some examples of fifteen to one. So, committee staff is the first area that we could look to cut. Our Republican leader, Bob Michel, has said that when he becomes Speaker, as one of h is first acts he will cut staff by about 50 percent on day one. Shadow Executive Branch. Beyond committee staff, there has been erected a shadow execu- tive branch under the direct control of the Congress-entire departments, and agencies, which mimic what the executive branch is doing. These departments and agencies share one distinction, however. They are not under our separation of powers system within the purview of presidential control. They answer to legislators. As a matter of first principle, legisl a tors are supposed to pass laws; they are not supposed to be so jealous of the powers of another branch of government that they erect Cabinet departments, if you will, put administrators in charge of them and have them execute the law or investigate. Some e ven have a criminal division, as the General Accounting Office does, pretending to be the criminal division of the Department of Justice. Likewise, they should nolt, as legislators, try to mimic what the courts do-sit as judge and jury and decide people's fates and their reputations and even impose penalties. But the legislature, the Congress has so jealously looked after its own prerogatives, that it has expanded into the other two fields. Jefferson said our system of checks and balances will not work unl e ss each of the branches jealousy guards its own powers. I submit that the Congress has done a stellar job, that the judi- ciary has performed second best, and that in recent years the executive has fared least well of all. That poses very serious problems for our government. I mentioned the General Accounting Of- fice, which is one of the Cabinet departments erected by the Congress. It has over 5,000 employees, compared to the Office of Management and Budget, which has 600; or compared even to the Organisa t ion for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the international organization of economics and planning for 27 of the world's industrial countries, which has a staff of 1,800. GAO is so large that the amount we spend on it, roughly a half billion do l lars a year, exceeds by over one hundred million dollars all costs of the management and financial au- dits of Price Waterhouse. So if we were to displace all of Price Waterhouse's commercial clients across America, and instead have one client- the govern m ent-and ask them to do indepen- dent audits and reports and so on, as we ask GAO, we could operate for a lot less and have impartiality. We have the Office of Technology Assessment. We have -the Congressional Re- search Service. We have the Congressional B udget Office. All of these things are set up to rival what the executive branch is doing, so that the legislature cannot only pass the laws, but also exe- cute them, interpret them, enforce them, and punish offenders. Congress is not able, of course, to d o this with 535 men and women. Congress has to have staff for this purpose. And so the staff explosion in Congress parallels -precisely the abuse of power and the dissipation of responsibility in Congress. How bad is it? It is so bad, that as an in- dividu a l member of Congress, seeking to do nothing more than legislate, I have often been prohibited from, reading the bills on which I am asked to vote, because that is the prerogative of the staff, and a member hasn't any business doing this. I am not making t his up; this is true.

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Voting Without Reading. When I fust came to Congress in early 1989 my very first expen- ence with this was the Savings and Loan (S&L) bailout bill-then a $150 billion 776-page monstrosity. It was carried into the chamber at the very last minute. Not a single member of the House or Senate had read it. It was voted upon and then not even printed until three days after- wards. Let me read you what one of my colleagues, who was from the very first days involved in tying to root out the S&L scandal, said about this process. Congressman Stan Paffis-many of you may remember him-then served on the House Banking Committee. In my view, he took a back seat to no one when it came to knowledge of the S&L crisis. He was the member of Con- gre s s who originally sought the General Accounting Office investigation that gave us the first look at the real extent of the S&L crisis. Hours before the final vote on the bill, he expressed grave concerns about the process by which this all was happening. " N o living person," he said, "knows just what is in this bill. I don't know what it is in it. The Secretary of the Treasury doesn't know what is in it. The conferees don't know what is in it. But I can tell you that from what I've seen, there are a great ma n y awful provisions in this legislation and they win come back to haunt us." I think now in 1992, from our vantage point, we can say that Stan Parris in that prediction was exactly correct. These are the consequences of so much staff that the mem- bers of C ongress are not even participating in or reading the legislation that they are voting upon. That wasn't the first and last time; it was an early instance for me in Congress. But later on in 1989 we had something called the Reconciliation Bill to wrap up t h e whole government, just one day before Thanksgiving in the wee hours of the morning. This bill ran to over 1,000 pages, cov- ered over $1 trillion in spending for the United States government for the ensuing year. It was carted into the House chamber in a large, oversized, corrugated box. Over a thousand pages type, written and ran off on many different printers, tied with twine, not conated, because it had come from too many different offices, the pages not consecutively numbered, and no index. There was no other copy for any member to look at or read, other than what was in this box. Now I will allow, while I was not able to read it, I was permitted to walk down into the well and gaze upon it from several angles, and even to touch it. When we voted on th a t bill, at about four o'clock in the morning, not a single member of the House had read it; not a single member of the Senate had read it. It was subsequently printed in the Congressional Record. Of course, you know the rules of the House require that a b i ll be printed three days before it can be v@ted upon. That is just one of the rules that are routinely waived by our Rules Committee when these shenanigans go on. And we needn't worry that a member of Congress who wants to read a biil that he is voting on doesn't have that opportunity, because the staffer is looking after

Tale of the Highway Bill. My most recent experience with this was on the Public Works and Transportation Committee, perhaps the most bi-partisan committee in the entire Congress. This is an illustration of how institutional the problem is. It isn't just Democmts who am responsible for this, it is the institution of Congress that now runs this way. I served on the Public Works and Transportation Committee for four years, principally becaus e in Southern California transportation is such an enormous concern for my constituents. We are in gridlock out there. We need to have some action. I thought the Public Works and Transportation Committee would be the perfect place to have action, and I wan t ed to be part of iL So that is where I served, and my four years of waiting paid off, because this past year was the year that we were going totally to redesign the federal highway finance system, the now-com- pleted interstate highway system which had be en the centerpiece of federal highway policy since the Eisenhower Administration. Now we were going to figure out what to do with all of that gas tax money, and what to do with transportation in America

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You can imagine then that I was rath er upset that what turned out to be a six-yea re-authoriza- tion bill, a total new blueprint for the future for federal highway planning, was not even given a markup in my Surface Transportation Subcommittee. I signed a letter circulated by my Democrat co l league, Tim Valentine, addressed to the subcommittee chairman, complaining that the entire process was being bypassed and that we would not have an opportunity to have the normal markup of such a significant bill in our Surface Transportation Subcommittee , the committee that has jurisdiction. Instead, the bill went to the full committee directly. And all during the process of drafting the bill, members of Congress were frozen out. If it were not for some lobbyist friends who shared some information with me , I would not have had a clue what was in this bill before it came to us in full committee. That day was the very first day I got a -chance to look at the bill. It was plunked down in front of me, about yea-high, and we voted on it the same day, during the same hearing, within the same hour. And as if that weren't enough, the bill then went to Conference, and it was changed substantially; but there was very little informa- tion that came out of the Conference. And so it was not possible for us to find out f r om the conferees what was happening. Then finally, it came to the floor and let me give you-because I kept a little diary-the last hours of this transportation bill, which some of you may remember was about $151 billion last fall. Tuesday, November 26, 2: 0 0 pm.: Public Works and Transportation Committee meets to announce an agreement has been reached to resolve House and Senate versions of the bill. A two-page hand-out is distributed, but the new bill itself is not available to Committee members. There are no details on funding for the demonstration projects, which were probably the most expensive, pork barrel centerpiece of the bill.

10:00 p.m.: U.S. Department of Transportation officials, with whom I was trying to work to see if they had any information on this, state that they have "no idea about funding levels for demonstration projects."

11:30 p.m.: Public Works Committee reports that the bill is not available and is still being worked on. According to staff, the plan is to go before the Rules Committee at 2:00 a.m., although the bill might not be completed at that time.

Wednesday, November 27,2:00 a.m.: Rules Committee meets to discuss trans- portation bill. The bill itself, however, is not available during consideration.

4:00 a.m.: Debate begins on the House floor, under waiver of all the rules. The bill is still not available.

So picture this. My colleagues, at 4:00 in the morning, are out there debating this bill, but there is no bill.

4:55 a.m.: Final bill, over 1,000 typewritten pages, arrives in the House chamber in the midst of debate. No copies are available for members of Congress.

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6:00 a.m.: Without a single member having read it, the House votes 372 to 47 in favor of the bill.

Of course, the -debate on the bill was devoid of conten t. The proponents went to the floor and spoke in broad generalizations about a blueprint for the next century. And the opponents of the bill have nothing to say, because of course, they had not read it. That is, unfortunately, what Con- gress has become a s a result of too much staff. - By the way, anybody here know how much it costs to run the Congress for 535 men and women? Any guesses? I asked this question yesterday of a group of visiting high school students from my area in Southern California, and the first kid said, '310 million." And I said, "No." Somebody else - said,-- "$100 million ...... NO." Somebody else said, "$700 million." "No." And one of them said, "But there are only 535 people." And I said, "Guess again." So somebody guessed a billion. T h e answer, of course, is $2.3 billion. We just passed this legislative appropriations bill in the Congress yesterday. It is $2.3 billion, which compares, by the way, to less than $200 mil- lion for the Presidency. Not only will it save money to cut down on staff, but it wiU give us, more importantly, better legislation, better policy, mare information to relay to the American people upon which democ- racy depends, and more responsibilities for individual members. Think of how the process that I have just de s cribed feeds back into the democratic process and the electoral process. When I go home, if I have to defend my vote for or against a bill that is over a 1,000 pages long and con- tains everything but the kitchen sink, I would have to be a pretty poor spe c imen not to be able to defend a vote either way. Because surely in over 1,000 pages, I can find something you cannot do without, and something else that you can. And that is how members of Congress have been able to go out and sell soap to the American pe o ple in such a way that they all get returned to of- fice regardless of how much Congress has achieved. Reformed congressional staff is absolutely essential for good government. Veto Strategy. Yesterday's vote in the House of Representatives, passing the $ 2 .3 billion Leg- islative Appropriations Bill, had 143 votes against it. Veto strength, a solid one-third of the House, is 145. Among the votes for the bill yesterday were our Republican leader and our Repub- lican Conference chairman. I haven't any doubt t hat if the President of the United States was to veto this bill and ask for his Republican leader in the House and his Republican Conference chairman to support him, they would do so. There were some thirty other Republicans who voted for that bill who I t hink would go along with the President as well. So there is easy veto strength. We already have 143 votes against the bill up on the board. And that is why I have been circulat- ing a letter in recent days among my colleagues urging the President to do wh a t no President in modern times has done: veto the Legislative Appropriations Bill to show Congress that this year, with a $400 billion deficit, it will no longer be "business as usual." Yesterday I had lunch at the White House with the Chief of Staff and t he Counsel to the Presi- dent, and I think that we are generating some support for this idea. We will see in the days ahead whether or not it is going to come to pass. But whether or not it happens at this time, whether or not this Congress seizes the rei n s of leadership, whether or not this President is going to go toe to toe with the Congress, the American people are ready. They have had it. Ross Perot did not mate- rialize out of nowhere. Ross Perot has as his centerpiece issue one thing: get that feder al deficit under control, stop this hemorrhaging interest, and deliver the American people from this bond- age. Reform of the Congress itself is where that effort has to begin.

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