- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 10, 2006

An unstated cause of the unfolding Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal is the extensive changes in both the membership and staffing of Congress over the last 30 years and a breakdown of longstanding legislative procedures.

These days, most congressional aides — and even some members — look like they are barely out of college. And though they may be smart and well educated, they have no depth of experience and no commitment to the Congress as an institution. They are simply there to get a line on their resume before becoming lobbyists and making the big bucks.

It wasn’t like that when I started work in the House of Representatives 30 years ago. A great many aides had made a career out of working on Capitol Hill. It wasn’t unusual to work with people who had been around for 20 or more years. There was a loyalty to their bosses and to the legislative process then that seems to have completely evaporated.

One reason is that the commitment of members of Congress to the institution and to good government has sharply waned. In 1976, when I first became a congressional aide, there were members around who had been elected in the 1920s — Rep. Wright Patman, Texas Democrat, is one I particularly remember. He took office in 1929 and often talked about the financial difficulties his grandfather faced after the Civil War, which shaped Patman’s own views about banks ever after.

Congressmen of that era weren’t just marking time until they became lobbyists. Being a lobbyist was like being a prostitute — it was something you did only when desperate. Their main goal was to acquire enough seniority to become a committee chairman, because that was the real power in Congress.

Congressmen like Wilbur Mills, Arkansas Democrat and longtime chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, had enormous power to shape legislation. Smart presidents deferred to them and sought their advice before advancing a major proposal. For example, John F. Kennedy was very influenced by Mills in developing his 1963 tax plan, as we now know from White House tape recordings.

One way chairmen maintained power was by insisting on proper legislative procedures. Bills were referred to subcommittees, which held hearings and mark-ups before sending them to the full committee. There would be more hearings and mark-ups by the full committee. Thorough committee reports were prepared and printed for each bill so every member had a clear idea what the legislation would do long before it came up for a vote.

This was very time-consuming. It often took more than one Congress for major proposals to get through one house before the process started all over again in the other house.

When a bill finally became law, it had been through the wringer several times, which helped ensure everyone knew what was in it, how it would work and every affected party had been heard.

This system, which served the country well for almost 200 years, started to break down in the 1970s, when liberal Democrats destroyed the seniority system in the House. This made it easier for them to move legislation, but also undermined the committee system itself. Also, when members knew they would no longer be rewarded automatically for service, turnover began accelerating among members and staff, who took an enormous amount of institutional memory and commitment to the Congress as an institution.

When the Republicans took control in 1994, they destroyed what was left of the historical system. Most subcommittees were abolished. Major bills were brought up for committee votes without hearings or even a draft that could be reviewed beforehand. After a while, the Republicans even dispensed with committee mark-ups. The leadership used the Rules Committee to bring bills directly to the floor, often in the dead of night.

This trampling of the committee system helped produce the Abramoff scandal. A lobbyist no longer needed to know the substance of a bill or have long experience with the committee of jurisdiction. He just needed to know one guy in the leadership who could stick his proposal into a bill when no one was looking. By the time the bill was printed, it would be law.

The Republican leadership plans new restrictions on lobbying to protect themselves from Abramoff fallout. But a real reform would re-empower Congress’ committees and make leadership action more difficult without proper oversight and deliberation.

Bruce Bartlett is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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