In January 1977, the U.S. House of Representatives began a long-term plan to win back the confidence of the American people. Recent scandals in the House—one which led to the departure of two senior Members, and a second one involving a Justice Department investigation into overseas campaign donations ensnared a number of other Representatives—had woefully tarnished Congress’s reputation.
It had been a quick fall from grace. The House had earned something of a good reputation during the Watergate scandal in 1974. Its careful and open investigation of the Richard M. Nixon administration, which eventually led to the president’s resignation that August, had demonstrated that Congress could hold the executive branch accountable. But in the three years since, the ethical missteps from a number of House Members had left voters wondering who would keep the House accountable.
As the public’s trust in Congress eroded, an ambitious crop of new legislators who had won election on the heels of the Watergate scandal aggressively pushed to change the culture on Capitol Hill, and to hold America’s elected officials to higher standards. By the winter of 1977, House leadership had taken notice.
In January that year, at the start of the 95th Congress (1977–1979), the new House Speaker Thomas (Tip) O’Neill of Massachusetts spoke with Dave Obey of Wisconsin, a five-term incumbent, about what reforms he wanted in the new Congress. Obey, chairman of the newly created House Commission on Administrative Review, had been charged with recommending ways to both improve the chamber’s ethics rules and professionalize House operations—a complete overhaul that would raise standards for both the Members and the institution. O’Neill told Obey to dig deep. “The farther we go the more people we will tick off,” Obey said of the old bulls who ran House committees like personal fiefdoms. “Do you expect us to . . . go all the way?” he asked. “Go all the way, Dave,” O’Neill responded. “I want a fresh start for this Congress.”
Legislators had earlier considered institutional reforms during the 94th Congress (1975–1977) when Speaker Carl Albert established a Democratic task force to offer recommendations for simplifying the House’s administrative procedures. Chaired by Obey, the small task force produced a 13-point program, including one suggestion that called on the House to create a Commission on Administrative Review, a 15-member panel comprised of five Democrats and three Republicans from the House, and seven outside experts from the fields of business, education, and economics. The commission would be charged with conducting a comprehensive study on staffing and spending practices. The House agreed to Obey’s commission (H. Res. 1368) by a vote of 380 to 30, and gave the new investigation 18 months to conduct its study and report its findings. O’Neill, who was Majority Leader at the time and in line to become Speaker, granted the commission wide latitude to conduct its business in the next Congress.
Obey’s commission interviewed 150 Members and their staffs, as well as committee staff directors and House employees in order to get a better sense of how the institution functioned. Among its findings, the commission discovered that services such as telephone operations, property maintenance, and human resources were managed by “separate offices and units in piecemeal, inconsistent, and overlapping ways.” To streamline everything, the commission recommended that the House create a new position, a chief administrator, appointed by the Speaker, who would work alongside a comptroller and auditor, to coordinate and handle “the day-to-day . . . support operations of the House.” The Clerk’s Office would assume expanded legislative duties under the commission’s recommendations, while a new Office of Personnel and Work Management would consolidate the House’s human resource needs into one unit.
The Obey Commission released its findings and recommendations in September 1977. A supportive Speaker O’Neill boasted to reporters that the reform package (first as H. Res. 766 and later as H. Res 819) would “sail through” with few modifications. O’Neill praised the commission’s work, and he cautioned the House “if you want to kill it, then the onus is on you, because if this rule goes down the drain . . . I see no future for any future ethics in this Congress.” Among its more consequential reforms, the commission called on the House to restructure the powers and privileges of committee chairmen. It also asked the House to install both a code of financial ethics and a broader ethics pledge that would manage conduct within the institution.
Not every Member supported the reforms, however. Obey—who admitted that he hated having to act as “a judge of other Members of Congress”—recalled that powerful Members such as Frank Thompson, Jr. of New Jersey, the newly appointed chairman of the House Administration Committee, and Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee, organized an “underground resistance movement” because they feared the new administrator would undermine their authority. Jack Brooks of Texas, who was in his second term as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, argued that Members were abdicating their responsibilities by giving too much power to costly, “non-elected super administrators.”
Despite O’Neill’s earlier warning, a sizable number of Democrats and every Republican voted against the administrative reform package, killing it in a 252–160 vote. Obey and O’Neill cited a number of factors for the bill’s failure. Members were tired of the constant exposure that accompanied the reform effort, and thought the commission’s plan to restrict outside income in exchange for a pay raise generated too much negative press. The expanded financial disclosure rules, accompanied by concerns that the administrator would have too much control over House functions, also helped derail the effort.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, however, as the demand for a more professional work environment became a common cause in the House, Obey noticed that “one by one, the vast majority of [the commission’s] recommendations” were implemented. Obey submitted some of the bills himself, and House leadership suggested others in the wake of later ethics scandals. In response to the revelation that Members had taken numerous overdrafts from the House Bank in 1992, the House established a Director of Non-Legislative and Financial Services who would manage House administrative functions under the jurisdiction of the House Administration Committee. That office gave way to the creation of the Chief Administrative Officer at the start of the 104th Congress (1995–1997). It was, in large measure, the culmination of the commission’s recommendations two decades earlier for a more professional House with streamlined and efficient operations.
Sources: Julian E. Zelizer, On Capitol Hill: The Struggle to Reform Congress and its Consequences, 1948–2000 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004): 156–158, 161–163, 177–179; James T. Patterson, Restless Giant: The United States From Watergate to Bush v. Gore (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005): 62–66; David R. Obey, Raising Hell for Justice: The Washington Battles of a Heartland Progressive (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2007); Congressional Record, House, 94th Cong., 2nd sess. (1 July 1976); Congressional Record, House, 95th Cong., 1st sess. (4 January 1977, 12 October 1977); Administrative Reorganization and Legislative Management: Communication from the Chairman, Commission on Administrative Review, U.S. House of Representatives, vol. 1 of 2: Administrative Units, 95th Cong., 1st sess., H. Doc. 95–232 (1977); House Rules Committee, H. Res. 819, 95th Cong., 1st sess., H. Rept. 95–667 (1977); Boston Globe, 23 June 1976; Chicago Tribune, 28 February 1977; Los Angeles Times, 22 June 1976, 13 January 1977, 13 October 1977; New York Times, 2 July 1976, 22 July 1976, 2 October 1977, 4 March 1992; Washington Post, 24 November 1976, 31 July 1977, 29 September 1977, 13 December 1994, 18 May 1997.Follow @USHouseHistory