Reigning in the Imperial Congress

The 22nd Amendment to the US Constitution limits the president to two full terms. Before this amendment was passed in 1951, some commentators-many nostalgic for Franklin D. Roosevelt's four terms- warned of dire consequences from the restraints it might place on the presidency. But the executive branch has not foundered because of the amendment. On the contrary, a large body of opinion today favors curtailing even further the powers of what historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., dubbed the imperial presidency.

New restraints, especially on the money-creating powers of government, are indeed needed. But there is an even greater need today for more restraints on our imperial Congress. Our representatives and senators have been just as eager as our recent presidents-often even more eager-to expand the already gargantuan expenditures and powers of government.

Shortly after the Reagan administration took office, House Speaker Tip O'Neill called a well-publicized "summit meeting" with the president of all the American people. The president had to go to O'Neill, symbolizing his role as supplicant. The president reportedly pleaded for budget cuts and offered various compromises on his own program, but the speaker of the House turned him down- and the great pork barrel rolled on.

This episode points to a problem found in both the House and the Senate, but especially the House. The Founding Fathers gave the House the dominant power over taxation precisely because its members were to be elected directly by the voters (and for only two years at a time). The Founding Fathers figured the people would be led by their own self-interest to elect representatives who would keep taxes to a minimum. And at first they did. For well over 100 years, federal taxation in peacetime was almost never more than 2.5 percent of the Gross National Product. Today, however, it is almost 10 times that if "off-budget"-that is, hidden-spending is included.

What went wrong with the Founding Fathers' plan? What produced this sea change in the trend of congressional actions? As usual, there are a number of factors involved, but the critical difference has been the growth of concentrated power both in the House committees and subcommittees that handle virtually all bills before that body and in the House leadership that coordinates the committees. The crucial factor responsible for this concentration of power has been the growing tenure of members of Congress.

The increasingly long terms of congressional office have an explanation. Back in 1910, members of Congress staged a dramatic revolt against Speaker Joseph "Czar" Cannon, one of the most authoritarian speakers in the history of the House. Cannon had single-handedly picked the members and chairmen of all the House committees, rewarding his friends and punishing his enemies. When his power was finally broken by the revolt, the speaker's prerogatives were permanently reduced and Congress adopted a new system-it began assigning committee chairs and slots according to members' seniority.

There is little question that the new system was a vast improvement over Cannon's ruthless political machine, but seniority was far from ideal. The new criterion for power in the House was no longer loyalty to the speaker but longevity in office. It wasn't long before congressmen responded to the incentives to hold on to their seats. Length of tenure grew remarkably, especially for members of Congress fortunate enough to represent districts where they had little opposition, such as in the "solid South."

Few states' representatives exploited the new system as thoroughly as did those hailing from Texas. By the time Lyndon Johnson was first elected to Congress in 1937, two of his fellow Texans had been in Congress for 24 years each, and two others for 20 years each. John Nance Garner, the vice-president at the time, had been a Texas congressman for 30 years, eventually winning the speaker's chair. And Johnson himself succeeded a 24-year veteran who left office only via death.

All this Texan tenacity was not in vain. For decades, Texas enjoyed vast outpourings of federal largesse-contracts, military installations, water projects, and subsidies of every variety. Texans have the seniority system, and some exceptionally crafty politicians who knew how to exploit it, to thank.

The long tenures that followed the 1910 reforms were in stark contrast to those in the 19th century. Congressmen then, like presidents, expected to serve only one or two terms. Former Rep. Richard Bolling (D-Mo.) gave some indicative figures in his 1969 book, Power in the House. Until 1901, in an average Congress, first-term members accounted for 30 to 40 percent of the entire membership in each house. And in most of those Congresses, the percentage actually ranged from 40 to 60 percent. Moreover, House members' average tenure never rose above 2.9 terms (5.8 years) until this century and was usually below that figure.

Although a very few congressmen did serve long terms, almost none were professional politicians like the great majority are today. Nearly all of them observed Andrew Jackson's doctrine of "revolving" political offices, which reflected the view that the nation was best served by letting as many leaders as possible serve the public.

New blood, it was argued, would tend to produce creativity and dedication and prevent the entrenchment of vested interests that breed corruption. Brief tenure would also keep politicians relatively close to the voters. Above all, it would offer no opportunity to use a congressional seat to maximize their own power by milking interest groups and the public. So-called robber barons might corrupt state legislators with long tenure, but representatives were gone from Congress before they had much chance to feather their nests.

Abraham Lincoln served as a representative from Illinois for only one term (1847-49) and did not run for reelection because "it was someone else's turn to run." In the same way, speakers took turns, so that very few held power for more than one session and only one did for three sessions (Nathaniel Macon, from 1801 to 1807).

After the "revolt" gave power to seniority, all of this was turned on its head. Czar Cannon's successor as speaker, Champ Clark of Missouri, may not have had Cannon's power over the committees, but he still served four consecutive terms. Sam Rayburn was speaker for 17 years altogether (1940-47, 1949-53, and 1955-61)-a record. In the last century, that would have been unheard of. Contests for the speaker's position were vigorously fought in the 1800s, but today, the selection of the speaker is a foregone conclusion. (Within the party caucuses that elect speakers every two years, incumbent speakers haven't faced a serious contest for reelection in decades.)

Incidentally, congressmen in the 1800s might have been scandalized or perhaps envious to learn that with only one exception (Carl Albert of Oklahoma), every speaker since 1940-Democrat and Republican alike-has come from either the Boston area or Texas. Tip O'Neill of Cambridge, Massachusetts, is widely expected to retire as speaker in 1985 or 1987, hoping to close his public career as ambassador to Ireland; and his heir-apparent is Majority Leader Jim Wright of (where else?) Texas.

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