Reform Still Needed
Special Interest and Special Privilege
Millicent Fenwick was a troublesome Republican member of Congress who actually believed Republican rhetoric and shamed her colleagues, Republican and Democrat alike, by upholding wholesome American principles instead of corruption and greed. Here are some of her remarks from August of 1976.
"0n the one hand," said the economist, "you have a problem in macro-economics, and on the other hand..." When the economist had left the room, President Harry Truman reportedly said: "What I need around here is a one-armed economist."
What the country needs -- and most particularly what Congress needs -- is a one-armed reformer. Why do we get these "tax-reform" bills without reform, these "Christmas-tree" public service and public works jobs bills, this legislation that opens the door to special privileges for special-interest groups and builds a high wall of protection for certain occupations, costing the public billions of dollars unnecessarily, every year, year after year? And why is it that the legislation that really does try to reform never sees the light of day?
There are two reasons, I believe. The first is that one party has been in charge of Congress for too many years. Its power is enormous, and the arrogance of power infects it. Good people are voting as they shouldn't -- against election reform, to take the most obvious example -- because the powers of the hierarchy and the committee and subcommittee chairmanships are so seductive.
A so-called "reform Congress" was installed in 1975, but the first act of the Democratic caucus was to confirm Wayne Hays in his chairmanship. The overwhelming majority of Democrats there voted with him in the House to abandon the vestiges of the October 1974 reform, among them one that opened all hearings and meetings of committees to the press and public. In May, only 11 of the 75 new Democratic reformers stood up against Hays and voted to sustain the Election Commission when it presented its first reform to the House.
"If you want to get along," Sam Rayburn is said to have advised a novice, "you have to go along." The temptations of power -- to control which bills will be released from committee, and who will be hired, and office space, and all the rest -- are soon evident, even to a newcomer.
The second reason we get so many of the wrong bills and so few of the right ones is the money that organizations contribute to election campaigns. No organization, whether professional, business, or occupational, should be allowed to contribute to a candidate or spend money on his behalf. I know that there are many honorable people in Congress who accept such gifts and say -- quite truthfully, I am sure -- that they vote as the organization wants them to only when they think that it's the right way to vote. But I also know, by direct answers to plain questions -- "Why are you voting against this disclosure section?" ... "What are you doing on the veto override?" -- that sometimes the motives are mixed. The plain answer that I once got was that so-and-so "wants it and they gave me money." Another time I was told, baldly: "What do you think I'm going to do -- I got fifty-eight thousand dollars from those boys?"
Apart ftom the motives, what about the public -- the poor, patient, and now almost totally disillusioned public -- which is paying for the whole thing? What can the people think when, thanks to disclosure, the slimy trail from the contribution to the vote can be so easily traced? Just as Harriman and Hill were said to have bought up the legislatures of the West when the trains were going through, so the new special-interest groups are now seen by the public as controlling factors in the votes of the House.
The tragedy is that though some of the finest people I have ever met are in Congress, they are trapped by a terrible system. It is as though our feet were stuck in concrete; we can't get away from "the way things are." In my opinion, the only thing that will cut us loose is a public that understands the evils of the system and demands change. When every candidate is asked repeatedly which organizations he or she had accepted money from, and how much, I think we will begin to see some changes. Candidates will see that the voters care.
And, if the voters care, we can get more than half-hearted reform. We only got a commission on administrative review, and a suggestion that the commission "should seek the advice" of the General Accounting Office (GAO), but, on the other hand, there was no provision for a mandated audit of committee accounts.
Surely it is time for us, the members of Congress, to work with single-minded purpose for reform. Both parties have been revealed as less than exemplary in their approach to governmental affairs. If these scandals don't move us, what in Heaven's name will?
We have a sturdy governmental system -- Thomas Jefferson called it "the strongest government on earth." But no system can withstand this kind of abuse forever. We must not only clean house at this time, but we must summon up some of the passion and belief, some of the capacity for self-discipline and sacrifice which carried forward, like a wave, the vision of a just and free society we once had. Above all, perhaps, what we need is courage.
What's your opinion? Would you add to Rep. Fenwick's remarks? Tell your views to The Progress Report:
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