With all the reform fervor advanced by the newly elected members of Congress, the faraway observer of the Washington scene might have begun to believe. After all, 110 new members of the House of Representatives, more than a quarter of the entire House, made up one of the largest and most determined new class in over forty years.
It took about three months for the senior barons of the House, led by Speaker Tom Foley (D-WA) and Rep. Bob Michel (R-IL) to get the newcomers in line. First there was some flattery. Right after the November election, Speaker Foley and some of his colleagues visited groups of these Freshmen around the country, thereby displaying a touch of unprecedented humility. Can anyone imagine Speaker Sam Rayburn doing this during his iron thirty year reign?
When Congress opened in January, the Freshmen organized themselves by party and elected their leaders to mobilize for the intended reforms. They were going after the perks, the waste in Congress, the automatic pay increases — to name a few of their irritations.
Messrs. Foley, Michel and colleagues began to turn the screws. There is much more important business for Congress to focus on during the Clinton Presidency, they declared. Then they began dribbling out the hints through the lofty Committee Chairmen: does the new member really want a certain Subcommittee or Committee assignment that he or she is seeking? Does the reformer want his or her favorite bills to receive a hearing?
It did not take long for the newcomers to drop their zeal for change and realize that ‘getting along by going along’ (Sam Rayburn’s concise phrase) was The Way to pursue. Just how processed the new lawmakers have become has been confirmed by a survey that I and several citizen groups conducted of all members of Congress a few weeks ago.
We asked each Senator and each Representative three questions. Would they support a rollback of the White House/Congressional Pay Raise to January 1, 1990 levels? Often called the midnight Pay Grab, a rollback would reduce their pay from the current $133,644 per Year (plus generous pensions, perks and other benefits) to $89,500 per year plus. Twenty Two Representatives (nine of them Freshmen) replied yes; no Senators did.
Question 2 asked whether they would support a repeal of their 1993 automatic COLA, worth over $3300 extra a year. Thirty-one Representatives (16 of them Freshmen) said yes. No Senators did.
Question 3 asked whether they would support term limitations for members of Congress. Notwithstanding supramajority support among voters for limited terms, only twenty-six Representatives (12 newcomers) and no Senators made this pledge.
What are the lessons for such an overwhelming negative stance on these three issues? They certainly knew about the survey. Every House and Senate member received a copy and was telephoned to confirm receipt several weeks later. They knew and rejected.
Lesson number one is that without an organized group of voters back home relentlessly pressing for such changes, amnesia sets in quite quickly once the newcomers arrive on Capitol Hill. Lesson number two is that so long as the 30 to 40 plus year unlimited term incumbents in Congress rule, the zest which the Freshmen bring to their work will be stifled under the compulsory tradeoffs served them by their elders.
In calling for a ten percent pay cut for top government officials and members of Congress, Ross Perot affirmed the obvious. Politicians, especially ones presiding over a broke government, ridden with waste and scandal for years, and pledging to change things, should govern by example. Sacrifice, modest though it be, should start at the top. To possess moral authority to govern, these leaders have to accept self-discipline and signal to the citizenry that they are serious.
If not, why should they be viewed as serious, much less sincere? Business as usual is hard to change anywhere. In Washington, unless the political leaders change, it will be near Impossible.