During the 100th Congress, the House met on 298 days and the Senate on 307. Congressional committees and subcommittees held 7,563 hearings, briefings and other meetings. Yet on Oct. 1, 1988, when the 1989 fiscal year began, Congress still had not compiled a federal budget.
The same thing happened in 1989 - and in fact, in seven out of the last eight years. Increasingly, it seems that the reason Congress fails to get its work done is rooted in a paralysis of committees, ostensibly charged with fact-finding.Along with the growth in numbers of meetings has been a corresponding expansion of congressional staff to keep up with it all. Yet this swollen staff bureaucracy has not made things any more efficient.
Unfortunately, the purpose of congressional hearings is too often one of self-promotion - where members of Congress, lawyers and lobbyists, corporate executives, and other Washington"players" unapologetically work up a frenzy of publicity.
One of the best ways to do it is to latch on to celebrities who are willing to champion a cause. Movie stars, prize fighters and rock musicians testify before congressional hearings as if they were experts on such complex topics as the rain forests of Malaysia, the Low-Income House Energy Assistance Program, inhumane animal trapping and the dangers of Alar to fruit.
This concept is sometimes described as "celebrity as moral authority" and is used to try to make whatever crisis is being discussed seem the worst of all - and thus in need of massive programs and federal dollars.
If fact-gathering were the reason for hearings, it could be done more efficiently, with the use of think tanks and such governmental resources as the Congressional Budget Office, the Government Accounting Office and the Office of Technology Assessment.
Instead, numerous committees unashamedly thump for a cause. There are as many as 30 different committees or sub-committees all working on the same issue. This suggests a genuine need to reform the process by which Congress does its work.
A good place to start would be to reform the committee structure and eliminate overlapping jurisdiction - then concentrate on the nuances of an issue instead of provide a forum for Hollywood celebrities.