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Reform's good intentions can easily go awry

Anyone looking back on the governmental paralysis and fiscal chaos that gripped official Washington last month might find himself pondering one of the ongoing rules of political wisdom: Beware the zeal of reformers. On the face of it, there doesn't seem to be any particular connection between the recent mess and any reformist zeal that may have emerged in the body politic. After all, it has been 16 years since the Watergate days, when scandal and political disillusionment spawned a feeling throughout the country that things were bad and needed to be set right.

But further reflection suggests there may be a strong connection between those days of reform and our woes of today. Much of the current problem seems to stem from an erosion in the disciplines of legislative operations, fiscal policy-making and political adhesiveness.

In the old days, various breeds of political bosses _ always the target of would-be reformers _ held much greater sway over rank-and-file politicians. In the House, an almost ironclad seniority system and a cadre of powerful committee chairmen could pretty much ensure that when a deal was cut, that deal would stick. Congressional leaders, presumed to be running things, were held accountable for a relatively smooth flow of appropriations measures, which strengthened the hand of the president in fiscal matters. And politicians were beholden to their parties, strengthening the hand of party leaders in Congress.

All this came to an end in 1974, when America experienced the multiple lacerations of a scandal's aftermath, a president's resignation, the economy's decline and a more than threefold increase of oil prices. Voters cried out for a return to the nation's ethical moorings, and the result was a wave of reform.

That was the year of the "Watergate babies," a new breed of Democrat bent on pushing aside the old-timers and grabbing control of the levers of Congress. Under the banner of reform, they assaulted the seniority system, pulled back power from the committee chairmen, and made the Democratic Caucus the force to be reckoned with.

The same year witnessed what was widely viewed as fiscal reform, a budget act that outlawed presidential impoundments, further eroded the powers of Appropriations Committee barons and set in motion a whole new set of fiscal maneuvers aimed at satisfying spending constituencies back home.

Then there was campaign reform. Too many rich people were buying influence, and so emerged a new system, with contribution limits for political givers and new encouragement for political action committees. The result: further erosion in the influence of the parties and further atomization of American politics. More and more, members became independent power centers unto themselves, beholden only to the PACs and constituent interest groups.

All of these reforms sprang from good intentions and civic concern. But the new order set in place 16 years ago has apparently run its course, rendered increasingly dysfunctional by a lack of control.

There is evidence in this year of political unrest that Americans are losing patience with the chaos and paralysis that seem inherent in our political system today. But will the reforms of old be reformed anew? The answer lies with the voters on Nov. 6. A harsh judgment could beget institutional changes, but politics as usual from the voters almost assuredly will guarantee politics as usual in Washington.

Robert W. Merry is executive editor of Congressional Quarterly.