Congress

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The members of both houses are entitled to thirty-six round trips to their home districts at government expense during each two-year term of Congress. In addition each receives a stationery allowance of $4,250 a term, free telephone service, up to $4,000 in telegrams per term, free haircuts (for men only), and free medical care; and each enjoys the franking privilege—the right to free postage for official business—which has often been abused because the fine line between official and political mail has never been clearly drawn. Another perquisite is junketeering—government-financed trips, allegedly for official inspections and fact-finding studies but more often pleasure trips paid for by public funds. Roughly half the Congress in a given year travels abroad in this fashion. In 1971, for example, 53 senators and 221 representatives spent over a million dollars on junkets to Paris, San Juan, Hong Kong, et al.

LAWMAKING is, of course, the chief function of Congress. Under the Constitution either house may introduce legislation, with the exception of money bills, which must originate in the House of Representatives, the Senate having the right to amend. The Senate is the most powerful upper chamber in the world, fully the equal of the House in the legislative process, and because of its special authority in advising the President on treaties, nearly his equal in foreign affairs. The British House of Lords, by contrast, holds only a suspensive veto, by which it may delay but not kill legislation originating in the House of Commons, and is in most respects totally subordinate to the lower house.

Since 1789 some 941,000 bills have been submitted for consideration; approximately 86,000 have passed into law. Beginning with the First Congress, in which 144 measures were introduced and 118 approved, the volume of legislation has steadily increased. Numbered in the mere hundreds in each two-year term of Congress during the nineteenth century, since 1933 bills have totalled in the thousands. At the present time an average of 22,000 new bills appear in a typical term; something between 900 and 1,500 eventually become law.

At the heart of the legislative process is the committee system, which was reformed and strengthened in 1912 after a two-year struggle during which a number of insurgents led by George Norris of Nebraska sought to curb the power of the Speaker of the House. Largely through the efforts of two men the Speaker had become, next to the President, the most powerful man in government. “Czar” Thomas B. Reed of Maine in the 1890’s and “Uncle Joe” Cannon of Illinois from 1903 to 1911 had ruled the House with an iron hand and almost alone dictated what bills would reach the floor for debate and vote. Like other Speakers before them, they appointed all standing committees and their chairmen, served as leader of the Rules Committee—the clearing-house for all bills—and directed the floor action on all legislation. But they had also cut new parliamentary ground and, often ignoring well-established precedents, used their power—as the official House history puts it—in an “arbitrary and autocratic manner.”

The result of this one-man rule was the “Revolt of 1910.” The Speaker was supplanted by the committee chairmen, and currently they wield the great powers he once possessed. The Rules Committee is now the most powerful organization in the House. It assigns all bills for action by other committees and reviews all bills before debate. It may call for revision of committee proposals, further hearings on any measure, or amendments. Regardless of the recommendation any committee may make, if the Rules Committee chooses not to act on a bill (certain finance bills excepted), the bill is in effect killed without a floor vote.

For much of this century the committee has been controlled by southern conservatives consistently opposed to far-reaching social legislation and congressional reform. But in 1961, after an epic struggle between Speaker Sam Rayburn and Rules Chairman Howard Smith of Virginia, the committee’s membership was increased by three, giving liberal Democrats control. It remains very powerful, however, and the object of continuing reform efforts.

If the Rules Committee governs all legislation coming before the House, the chairmen of the standing committees similarly direct the course of all bills coming before them. They have the power to schedule hearings, set agenda, pigeonhole measures they personally find unacceptable, and report legislation out of committee for debate. Although there are parliamentary means for circumventing their power, the chairmen if they choose may be as dictatorial as the House Speaker of old.

At the present time there are twenty-one standing’committees in the House, down from forty-eight in 1946, when the Legislative Reorganization Act—the last major reform effort—was passed to increase congressional efficiency. In addition there are 122 subcommittees and some fifteen select, or short-term, committees to which legislation is referred for study. Each member of the House is assigned by a committee on committees or his party leadership to at least two standing committees and as many as five subcommittees.