Oleszek Wrote the Book on Congress | Procedural Politics
From his perch at the Congressional Research Service, Walter J. Oleszek has helped train hundreds, if not thousands, of members and staff over the past 45 years. It’s not surprising that he’s widely recognized, both on and off the Hill, as the pre-eminent expert on Congress — its rules and procedures, and how they have evolved over the past two and a quarter centuries.
The National Capital Area Political Science Association has formally acknowledged his unique stature in Washington. It recently honored Oleszek with its annual Walter Beach Pi Sigma Alpha Award for making “a substantial contribution to strengthening the relationship between political science and public service.”
I can personally attest to Oleszek’s vast knowledge and superb training skills. I benefited early from his wisdom when I arrived in the House in 1969 as a fresh-faced, clueless young legislative aide to a congressman.
In assisting my boss with his Rules Committee duties, I was assigned to keep close tabs on efforts to reform Congress. The House and Senate had created a joint committee in 1965 to make recommendations for improving the institution’s capabilities. I had monitored its hearings for my boss as an intern four years earlier, so with my arrival as a full-time staffer, its recommendations were finally being readied in the House Rules Committee for floor consideration.
Oleszek was one of the CRS staff members assigned to assist the Rules Committee with amendments and in drafting the report. That markup led to the enactment of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 — the first in a series of reform efforts in the early 1970s that led to the transformation of Congress in what political scientists refer to as the congressional reform revolution.
The revolution included establishment of a “committee bill of rights” to counter arbitrary and obstructive chairmen, and the overthrow of the seniority system that automatically elevated the longest-serving member on a committee to its chairmanship. That system was replaced, through a caucus rules change, with the election of chairmen by the party caucus.
Three committee chairmen were removed from their positions in 1974 with a big nudge from a large freshman class of “Watergate babies” who wanted to set an example for other chairmen. From then on, chairmen knew their survival depended on being responsive to the wishes of the caucus.
Oleszek was present for that opening round of reforms in what would become a transformative period in Congress, in which power gradually moved from committees to party caucuses and leaders — for better and worse, as he will be the first to tell you. There wasn’t a subsequent House or Senate reform effort in which Oleszek and his CRS colleagues weren’t involved.
Not all efforts were successful. Oleszek and co-author Roger Davidson, in their book “Congress Against Itself,” chronicle how the recommendations of a 1973-74 bipartisan select committee on committees were sidetracked to the Democratic Caucus and then gutted by a party substitute.
Likewise, in “Congress Under Fire,” Oleszek and C. Lawrence Evans, who had both worked on the staff of the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress in 1993-94, recount how, in the middle of the Rules Committee markup of the panel’s recommendations, Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., pulled the plug on the bill to avert a revolt by his committee chairmen.
The story still has a happy ending. When Republicans took control of the House in the 1994 elections, they resurrected many of the joint committee’s reforms in their opening day House rules package and quickly adopted them.
As the award citation observed, “Walter Oleszek epitomizes the characteristics and achievements the Walter Beach Award was created to honor — someone whom Woodrow Wilson would recognize as combining the ‘statesmanship of thinking’ with the ‘statesmanship of action.’”
And he is still going strong at the CRS — a remarkable four-decade-plus run that keeps on giving.