An ill wind is sweeping through Congress these days. It is a mood of confusion, frustration, indifference, timidity and the usual ‘ presence of political venality.
This is a Congress out of control, even from itself. It is bound by no substantive leadership or program, despite a solid Democratic majority. Its fitful slogans and zigs and zags seem to have one animus — bending to the workings of the corporate will that swarms victoriously over Congress with its lobbyists and campaign dollars. The Congressional elections of 1978 will set a record for election dollars from business sources. Along with the already indentured group of reactionary Republicans and Democrats, these dollars are eroding a balance-tipping slice of representatives and senators who were once called liberal. It is not just that these legislators fear losing businesses’ campaign funds; they also want to avoid having their opponents financed heavily in this way. This is particularly the case in the House of Representatives.
TYPICAL IS THE behavior of Thomas Foley (D.-Wash.), Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and until recently a solid Democratic liberal. Foley is being worn down by the agribusiness groups whom he speaks to and for so frequently these days. In late May, Foley decided that his three prior votes for the consumer protection agency bill in the last six years were ill-considered. So he switched to opposition and pleased the businessmen who promised to finance his next opponent if he didn’t switch.
In so doing, Foley has alienated the very consumer groups he has so often called upon to support his agriculture bills. His switch on the consumer bill drove a wedge in the consumer-farmer coalition just when Foley needs this coalition to pass a controversial farm bill next month.
If all this sounds irrational from Foley’s viewpoint, it serves at least to reflect the intellectual disarray of the Congressman from Spokane. As if to punctuate further his frustrations with government, he would favor a sunset provision for all government agencies, including, he says, the Department of Agriculture itself. Sunset legislation, to fix the term of government agencies, is the latest deceptive fad in Congress to evade the need for restructuring government toward citizen accountability.
Out of Atlanta, Georgia, comes another congressman with a gimmick. He is Elliot Levitas (D.-Ga.) who wants to enact a one-house veto power over federal agencies’ decisions. He would give Congress the authority to exercise a legislative veto over health and safety decisions, licensing rulings, and tens of thousands of .government actions each year. One-house vetoes have been considered unconstitutional by the Justice Department and other legal specialists who await a definitive Supreme Court ruling on the matter.
Already unable to perform adequately its broad policy-making functions, Congress would be plunged further into the minutiae of approving or disapproving airline routing decisions, bans on dangerous drugs and truck or railway tariffs. Talk of bureaucratic snafus! New waves of lobbyists would descend on Congress to get what they were denied by the Executive branch.
ALREADY THERE ARE some laws containing specific one-house vetoes that have adversely affected regulatory processes. It is one thing for Congress to repeal statutes or enact amendments which Presidents sign into law. But it is quite another matter for one house of Congress to block agency decisions without the approval of the other house and the President.
How many times a year do members of Congress want to expose themselves to the cloying of special interest groups?
To appreciate more graphically the paralytic effect that a one house veto. power would have on the Executive branch, readers may wish to send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Public Citizen, P.O. Box 19404, Wash., D.C. 20036. My associates, Alan Morrison and Reuben Robertson, will send you a copy of their testimony which features a hypothetical skit between an agency chairman and his general counsel.
Government by gimmickry reigns on’ Capitol Hill. Genuine measures to make government work more on the merits are in the legislative hopper but they are going nowhere yet. They would give citizens realistic access to shape governmental decisions, whether or not they have deep pockets. Senators Kennedy and Mathias are bipartisan supporters of some of these proposals.
In addition, if Congress replaces its own election auctions by passing a public campaign finance law, Will Rogers’ description that this country has “the best Congress money can buy” will be refuted by a Congress answerable to, the people.