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The Question of

American Politics:
©Marc A. Triebwasser

Congressional Leadership and Reform: The Trends Toward
Centralization and Decentralization

Thus far, we have been studying the structures and operation of Congress mostly in terms of how it exists today. To understand better how congressional institutions and politics are likely to evolve in the future, it is important for us to review past developments.

When our government was first established in the late 1700s, the expectation was that it would remain largely decentralized. This was especially true of the House of Representatives which was seen as an assembly representing the interests of the people. The dominance of this representative function remained reasonably effective throughout the 1700s and most of the 1800s. At that time, Congress was not expected to work quickly. It was rather seen as a deliberative body which would debate major public issues. The Senate, whose members--up until 1913--were chosen by the state legislatures, was also seen as a deliberative body, one representing the interests of the various states.

During the twentieth century, many significant changes have taken place in American society. As a result, it has become necessary for the national government to play a larger administrative role in the functioning of our country than it had previously. This need had emerged after the building of the transcontinental railroads in the 1870s and 1880s and the subsequent development of major nationwide industries--such as coal, oil and steel--in the late 1800s. The need for national administration became even more marked during the twentieth century with such major events as the First World War, the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Cold War, and the rise of conglomerates and multinational corporations from midcentury onward.

Throughout the 1700s and 1800s, most legislation affecting the day-to-day activities of Americans was handled on the state level. This included most business legislation. Under these circumstances, it was perfectly acceptable for Congress to move slowly and to handle only a limited number of issues affecting American society. Most of the detailed legislation which was needed was dealt with on the state level.

However, as the day-to-day business and other activities of Americans began to change from a local to a national focus, it became necessary for Congress--and for the national government in general--to assume an increasing amount of responsibility for these activities. The emerging needs of the twentieth century, therefore, added major new responsibilities to the role Congress had to play. Increasingly during this century, standards of efficiency and productivity have had to be applied to Congress. These new trends have created a major conflict in the demands being placed on our national legislature. One the one hand, the needs of representation and deliberation require a great deal of decentralization in the structure of Congress. On the other hand, the requirements of administration in a society of continental extent with international involvements necessitates the efficiency and effectiveness which can only be achieved through a more centralized structure.

This conflict between the needs of representation and those of efficiency--between decentralization and centralization--in Congress have been clearly evident in the twentieth century evolution of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Although various solutions have been attempted at different times, this conflict in the needs of decentralization and those of centralization is basically unresolvable. It is thus likely to remain one of the primary underlying tensions in the continued evolution of congressional institutions.

Developments in the House

By the end of the 1800s--with increasing pressure being placed on Congress to become involved in nationwide regulatory, and later administrative, activities--the leadership structure in Congress of necessity gained more power and became more centralized. The position of Speaker of the House emerged as a particularly powerful one with the Speakership exercising considerable power over the House Rules Committee, and thus over which legislation would actually reach the floor of the House.

Under Speaker Joe Cannon at the beginning of this century, the power of the Speaker became so great that a revolt occurred in Congress in 1910, and the Speakership was stripped of much of its authority including power over the House Rules Committee. As a result of these changes, the Chairpersons of the various committees in the House became quite powerful, resulting in a shift in power in the House from the centralized leadership of the Speaker to the more decentralized leadership of congressional committees as personified by their chairpersons.

Committee Government

As the national government became more powerful relative to the states and began to administer an increasing number of programs, several significant reorganizations occurred within the Executive Branch. In response to these--and especially in response to changes which occurred during the Great Depression and Second World War--Congress passed the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946. Through this act, the number of committees in the House was significantly reduced, thereby further increasing the power of the chairpersons of the remaining standing committees. In addition to this, the remaining congressional committees were provided with increased staff support and with the responsibility of overseeing the Executive Branch. The congressional reorganization ushered in by this Act thus served to increase the power of congressional committees. Some have therefore labeled the period from the late 1940s through the early 1970s as one of committee government in both the House and the Senate.

During this period, congressional chairpersons were extremely powerful. They had almost unlimited power over the staffs of their respective committees. They could decide when and whether their committees would meet. Thus, if they did not like a bill which was assigned to their committee, they could avoid even having it discussed simply by not calling committee meetings. They had the power to establish subcommittees of these subcommittees. They themselves would obtain the position of chairperson, not by a real vote but simply by seniority. In other words, the person from the majority party who had been a member of the committee for the longest time automatically became the chairperson of that committee.

This situation was particularly significant with regard to the House Rules Committee. As we have already observed, in order for a bill to be discussed on the floor of the House it needs to receive a rule from the Rules Committee to be placed on the agenda. The House Rules Committee therefore served for a long time as an effective bottleneck for legislation, especially for that of a progressive nature. Even if the original committee which discussed the bill wanted it passed and even if the entire House would be likely to vote for the bill, if the bill did not get a rule it could not even be discussed--and therefore had no chance of passage.

The Conservative Coalition

These particular procedural and structural factors combined with electoral and geographic considerations to produce a conservative dominance in Congress during the period between the Second World War and the late 1960s. Because of the seniority system, one of the best ways to obtain a committee chairpersonship was to come from a "safe district"--that is, a district where you are not likely to be challenged. Those states or districts which were dominated by a single political party obviously constituted such "safe" seats. From the end of the Reconstruction Period through the late 1960s, the South was almost totally dominated by the Democratic Party. Because of this, those Democrats with high seniority were very likely to come from Southern states.

In addition, during the 1940s and 1950s, Democrats usually maintained only a small majority in the House of Representatives. This meant that if a number of Southern Democrats defected from the general Democratic position and sided with the more conservative Republican one, this conservative coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats could obtain a majority vote on many issues.

Moreover, since the Democrats maintained the majority, those Democrats with greatest seniority held the committee chairpersonships. In most instances, this meant Southern Democrats. The elections of the late 1940s tended to bolster even further the position of these Southern Democrats. Thus, the Congressional Reorganization Act of 1946 combined with the electoral and geographic factors of the time tended to greatly enhance this dominance of Southern Democrats up until the late 1960s.

The Democratic Caucus

During the 1960s, an increasing amount of pressure for substantial reform began to be felt within the House. Some of the most important reform activities during this and later periods resulted from the establishment of the Democratic Study Group (DSG). This organization within the Democratic Caucus pushed for many reforms in congressional procedures, both within the Caucus itself and within the House as a whole. Since the Democrats maintained a majority in the House almost continuously from the Great Depression until 1995, it was the decisions of the Democratic Caucus during this time period which determined who would be the Speaker of the House, the chairpersons of all committees (including the powerful House Rules Committee), and the makeup of the majority membership of all committees. The important point is that the functioning of the House of Representatives is determined not only by rules which apply to the body as a whole, but also--and very importantly--by those rules which apply specifically to the majority party caucus.

Subcommittee Government

As a result of the pressures for reform which became even more intensified during the late 1960s, Congress passed another Legislative Reorganization Act in 1970. Under this Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 and other reforms, committee chairpersons were stripped of much--although not all--of their power. Congressional subcommittees were now to be assigned their own staffs at the discretion of the subcommittee's chairperson, rather than the committee chairperson. Subcommittee chairpersons were no longer to be appointed by the committee chairperson. Moreover, the position of committee chairperson itself was no longer to be determined simply by seniority, but rather by a vote of the Democratic Caucus. And chairpersons of congressional committees could no longer block meetings of the committee, but had to hold such meetings upon petition by the committee membership.

All of these reforms served to reduce significantly the power of committee chairpersons and to increase the power of subcommittees in Congress. As a result of these and other pressures, the number of subcommittees in Congress increased from 83 during the 1955-56 legislative term to 139 during the 1975-76 session.

As with the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, the Act of 1970 combined with electoral and geographic trends to produce a number of major changes in Congress. During the 1940s and 1950s the Democrats had only a small majority in Congress. During the 1960s and 1970s, however, they enjoyed a much more extensive majority. Moreover, instead of Southern Democrats comprising a large portion of the Democratic majority, Democrats held a majority in membership from almost all regions of the country during the 1970s. Furthermore, during the 1960s and 1970s, significant Republican advances in the South destroyed many previously "safe" Southern Democratic districts.

The increase in the competitive position of the Republicans in the South resulted in large measure from the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. As Blacks began to register and vote in the South, Democratic candidates had to become attentive to the needs of this group of voters and adopt more moderate social stances. As a result, many conservative white voters began to join the Republican Party. All this, of course, lead to the disappearance of the conservative coalition by the 1970s.

Another factor which became important during the early 1970s was the political fallout from the significant protest movements against the Vietnam War. As a result of these factors, a large number of younger and more liberal representatives and senators were newly elected to Congress during the early 1970s. The "Class of '74"--freshman representatives first elected in 1974--became a particularly powerful group within Congress.

The combined effects of all of these factors was most significant: There were now some 139 subcommittee chairpersonships to be distributed among 435 congresspersons--even fewer when one considers the fact that only Democratic representatives could chair committees or subcommittees at this time. Seniority played a much less significant role in the choice of chairperson. There were a large number of newly elected, younger congresspersons in the House, many of whom held subcommittee chairs. And congressional subcommittees had become a lot more powerful. One can easily see from all this how Congress in the 1970s would come to be dominated by a much younger and more liberal force politically, if not necessarily economically. The new situation which emerged during the 1970s has been called the period of subcommittee government. It obviously constituted a move toward decentralization.

Strengthening the Centralized Leadership

However, just as many congresspersons during the late 1960s and early 1970s were interested in decreasing the power of the old guard, they were also very much concerned with counteracting the increasing powers which had been assumed by the President and the Executive Branch throughout the twentieth century. Some of the reforms of the 1970s therefore also had the effect of centralizing congressional power so as to be more effective in dealing with the President. We have already mentioned the War Powers Act and the Federal Budget and Impoundment Act as measures designed to bolster the power of Congress in relation to that of the President. Obviously the development of coordinated budgetary procedures and the establishment of new Budget Committees in both chambers, as well as the creation of a Congressional Budge Office, served to increase the power of centralized congressional leadership in both the House and Senate.

Other important reforms which strengthened the power of centralized congressional leadership occurred within the Democratic Caucus itself as a result of a series of changes known as the Hanson Reforms. One of the most important of these changes was the establishment within the Democratic Caucus of a Democratic Steering and Policy Committee with important powers. Among other powers, this Committee soon gained the authority of the Democratic Committee on Committees. In other words, it came within the jurisdiction of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee to select the Democratic membership of all of the committees in Congress. The Speaker of the House also came to enjoy particular privileges with regard to the Democratic Steering Committee through which he had the authority to appoint the Chairperson and Democratic membership of the important House Rules Committee. The Rules Committee therefore no longer enjoyed independent power, but had to make its decisions within the context of the leadership of the Speaker, the Democratic Steering Committee, and the Democratic Caucus as a whole. The changes of the 1970s therefore resulted in both the decentralization and centralization of aspects of authority within Congress.

The 1995 Republican Revolution

During the 1980s and 1990s, calls for reforms continued within the House. Some of these involved moves toward the centralization of power by attempting to strengthen the role of the speaker. Others involved increasing the fairness of House floor procedures and other activities, increasing the rights of minority party members, and so forth. There were also calls for lobbying reform and for campaign finance reform--especially as a result of the banking scandals of the late 1980s. Most of these reform efforts, however, were blocked by the Democratic leadership which feared that such efforts might undercut their own personal power.

In the 1994 midterm election, the Republicans--lead by Newt Gingrich--mounted a nation-wide coordinated campaign effort under the banner of the Contract with America. The result was that the Republicans gained the majority in both the House and the Senate for the first time in many decades. By and large, the Republicans were not successful in gaining passage of many of the conservative items in the Contract's social agenda. This was because the passage of such items required the agreement of a far more moderate Senate, which although it had a Republican majority still had to function in a far more bipartisan manner than the House. The House Republicans also had to contend with a Democratic president who could veto their legislation.

On the matter of reforms in the rules by which the House functions, the Republicans were far more successful. Many of these reforms only required the approval of the full House; some only required the approval of the House Republican Conference, the Republican caucus made up of all the Republican members of the House. In a number of reforms, the Republicans were joined by the younger, reform minded Democrats who had been seeking reform when their party had held the majority.

Many of the reforms adopted with the Republican Revolution of 1995 were in the direction of the centralization of authority in the House. The speaker was given the power to appoint and remove committee chairs and increased authority over the appointment of the Republican membership of committees. The speaker could now appoint the chair and the Republican members of the House Oversight Committee which deals with how the House functions. Additionally, the speaker obtained increased administrative and procedural authority. In order to avoid the type of power situation which had existed at the beginning of the century under Speaker Joe Canon, a break was put on the speaker's power by limiting the speaker to an eight year term.

The dispersion of power to subcommittees which had resulted from the reforms of the 1970s was also reversed. The 1970s' Subcommittee Bill of Rights was repealed and the power of committee chairs was greatly increased. Committee chairs were given the authority to appoint subcommittee chairs and subcommittee membership, to control committee and subcommittee staff, and to administer subcommittee budgets. However, committee chairs were now also subject to term limits--ones of six years. By reducing the size of committee staffs by one-third, the Republicans were able to retire many senior Democratic staff members.

The House was now also made to follow the same laws guaranteeing rights of congressional workers that applied to workers in the private sector.

One of the main reasons that the Republicans were able to enact so many sweeping procedural and structural reforms was that they did not have to deal with an established power base. The Republicans had just gained the majority and, therefore, a window of opportunity for change existed in which people paid more attention to the calls for reforms which they had made when they were out of power and had not yet invested as much attention to their own personal career interests. This would quickly change. This is one of the reasons why so much of the change that did take place in 1995 occurred in the first 100 days of the congressional session.

As we have seen, in their attempt to centralize power in the House, the Republicans strengthened the role of the speaker. They also strengthened the role of committee chairs whom they felt would be more responsive to the speaker because of the speaker's appointment authority. However, in strengthening the power of committee chairs, the Republicans once again created the possibility of the development of major pockets of power in these committees. Moreover, by placing term limits both on the speaker and on committee chairs, they created lame duck situations which could greatly affect the exercise of power. Although Speaker Gingrich enjoyed a great deal of authority in 1995, subsequent years saw that power erode. Future trends in terms of the power distribution in the House are not at all clear.

Developments in the Senate

As we have noted, the Senate with only 100 members is able to operate far less formally than the House with its 435 members. Because of this, changes which have occurred in the Senate in recent decades are reflected more in the role of individual Senators, than in the overall formal structures and procedures of that body. In recent years, the party division in the Senate has usually been quite close. For this reason, and also because of the procedures of the Senate, there is usually far more cooperation between the parties in that body than in the House.

Southern Democrats in the Senate

As in the House, the particular influences of Southern Democrats on legislation is important to note. Up until the 1950s, Democrats came largely from the South and West, with the Republicans hailing mostly from the East and Midwest. However, with changes in electoral preference and with the decline of single-party districts in the South, some dramatic changes occurred in the decade following the 1950s. These have affected the makeup of the Senate in a similar manner to the way in which they affected the composition of the House. Moreover, Democratic advances in the East and Midwest have often been counterbalanced by their losses in the South. The party split in the Senate is thus far less regional than it has been in the past.

However, although these electoral and geographic changes clearly had an effect on the overall membership of the Senate, their effect on Senate leadership proceeded at a somewhat slower pace. In 1975, for example, even though Southerners accounted for only 26 percent of Senate Democrats, Southern Democrats still managed to hold 39 percent of the standing committee chairpersonships. What is more, these chairpersonships included the five most powerful Senate committees: Appropriations, Finance, Foreign Relations, Armed Services and Judiciary. Although this situation changed to some extent as time went on, Southern Democrats continued to hold a lesser, but still disproportionate, share of power in the Senate. On the other hand, the changes in electoral patterns and Senate procedures during the 1970s generally created a more politically liberal spirit in the Senate during the 1970s and 1980s. Today, with Republicans in the majority, conservative Southern Republicans play an important role in the Senate. Often these particular conservative Southern Republicans were formerly Democrats.

Senatorial "Folkways"

Since the Senate is made up of only 100 members, actions of individual Senators are often guided more by informal, unwritten agreements than by formal, written procedures. In fact, there are those who have likened the Senate to a "gentleman's club." In a study conducted during the 1950s, Donald Matthews noted six informal rules--or "folkways," as he called them--which had a great influence on the behavior of individual Senators.

The first rule was that newly elected freshman Senators were supposed to serve a period of apprenticeship. This meant that during their first period of office, they were not supposed to make speeches on the Senate floor and were supposed to be generally guided by their more senior colleagues. The second rule or norm was that members of the Senate were supposed to devote the major portion of their time to legislative work. They were not supposed to be traveling around the country making a national reputation for themselves. A third norm was that of specialization. Senators were supposed to concentrate on matters within the jurisdiction of those committees to which they were assigned or on those concerns which specifically affected their constituents. Becoming a jack-of-all trades and involving themselves in areas not specifically related to their committee assignments or constituents' needs was generally frowned upon.

Since the Senate is made up of 100 rather powerful people, the fourth norm of courtesy is extremely important. According to this informal rule, political conflicts within the Senate should never become personalized. Whatever their political disagreements, Senators are expected to treat their colleagues with dignity. The fifth norm is that of reciprocity. It is expected that Senators will assist their colleagues whenever possible and will avoid pressing their formal powers to an extent which would infringe upon the dignity of another Senator. The last folkway is that of institutionalpatriotism. According to this unwritten rule, it is required that Senators protect the Senate as an institution and avoid behavior which would place the Senate or its members in an unfavorable light.

It can easily be seen how most of these folkways or norms are helpful to the general operation of the Senate. It is therefore to the mutual interest of all members of the Senate that most of these customs be observed. However, during the last several decades notable changes have occurred in Senate practice. With the increase in newer and younger members in the Senate during the 1970s and with an increased need for expertise in attempting to govern our technologically complex society, freshman Senators have begun to play an important role very early in their careers. Therefore, newly elected Senators are no longer expected to play an apprenticeship role when they first enter the Senate. To the contrary, they are normally expected to become quite involved almost immediately.

Two other folkways have also become somewhat less important during the last few decades. These include those of legislative work and specialization. When our society was less involved and less complex, presidential candidates had most often served previously as governors. At this earlier time, the executive experience of governorship was seen as an important trait for a presidential candidate. Today, however, national experience is often seen as a far more important attribute in presidential candidates. The Senate therefor has become an incubator for presidential candidates, and many members of the Senate today are therefore quite interested in maintaining a national image. The norms of legislative work and specialization have thus become somewhat less frequently observed in recent years.

Despite this increase in senators as presidential candidates, however, those actually elected president even today have more often formerly served as governors. Nevertheless, Senators who see themselves as potential presidential candidates often devote relatively less time today to legislative work than their predecessors did and tend to spend more time involved in national appearances. In order to gain a national constituency, these members of the Senate also tend to become generalists rather than specialist. They are often involved in issues of national importance which relate neither to their own specific committee assignments nor to their particular constituents' needs.

These changes in the orientation and expectations of individual Senators should not, however, be seen as something negative. What they reflect is the greater interdependence we have experienced as a nation since the end of the Second World War. In fact, over the last half century America has emerged as a national society to an extent never dreamed of by our Founders. Under these conditions, it is certainly important that Congress look at matters from the broadest of national perspectives. It is true that this need does come into conflict with some of the requisites of constituent representation. And some Senators do find that their local constituents are not always happy with the broader stands they take on national issues. It is thus not unusual to find some Senators being far more cautious in taking such stances on national issues during the fifth and sixth years of their terms, as they begin to prepare for their upcoming local reelection battles. Despite this, the conflict senators and representatives face between representing the nation as a whole and speaking for their specific constituents' needs is an extremely healthy dynamic.

The remaining Senatorial folkways of courtesy, reciprocity, and institutional patriotism obviously still serve important institutional functions. For this reason they continue to be quite closely adhered to in the Senate. What we see from all this is that procedures and rules--whether formal or informal--do not change arbitrarily. Alterations in them rather reflect trends and needs developing both within specific institutions and within society as a whole.

Senatorial Leadership

A number of changes which have occurred during the last two decades in the Senate involve Senatorial leadership. Lyndon Johnson served as the Majority Leader of the Senate during the Eisenhower Presidency. Although Eisenhower was a Republican President, he was not a party person. In fact, he had at one time been personally registered as a Democrat. Being a war hero, he could have easily been chosen as either party's presidential candidate. Nevertheless, Eisenhower's bipartizan leadership did not reflect his own personal preference as much as it represented a political necessity.

For six of the eight years that Eisenhower served as President, he faced a Democratic Congress. If he was going to get anything done at all, he needed to have strong support from congressional Democrats. In pursuing this goal, Eisenhower formed strong partnership with Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. Through this arrangement of bipartisan leadership and through his own personal style, Johnson was able to maintain a very strong grip over the Senate. In fact, Johnson's grip was so strong that a number of years later, when he assumed the Presidency after John F. Kennedy's assassination, Johnson was able to get an impressive program of domestic legislation through Congress. In the decades since Johnson, the Majority Leaders--both Republicans and Democrats--have not maintained quite as strong a leadership role.

Changes in Senate Procedures

As we have noted, many of the changes which occurred in the Senate in recent decades have basically affected the interaction of individual senators with their colleagues. However, as in the House, similar changes can also be seen in reforms in the general structure and procedures which developed in the Senate during the 1970s. One of the more important of these reforms involved the cloture vote procedure--the procedure necessary to end a filibuster. Prior to that time, it required a two-thirds or 67 percent majority vote of the Senate for cloture to end a filibuster. This meant 33 senators could block the will of the majority. With reforms passed in the 1970s, only a three-fifths or 60 percent majority was required.

Another change in rules passed in the 1970s and intended to break the grip of the old guard was one which limited the service of members to only one of the Senate's four most important committees (Appropriations, Finance, Foreign Relations, and Armed Services). This rule obviously served to extend the scope of membership on these committees, thus leading to a more decentralized spread of power in the Senate. Other changes in the rules similar to those in the House opened up many committee and subcommittee meetings to the press and to the public.

In general the Legislative Reform Act of 1970 affected the Senate in many of the same ways it affected the House. This Act, together with other reforms, also caused a movement from committee to subcommittee government in this chamber. In 1957, for example, there were 15 standing committees and 113 standing subcommittees in the Senate. By 1975, there were 18 committees and 140 subcommittees in this body. Obviously with chairpersonships always going to the majority party and with something like 60 to 65 Democrats serving in the Senate during the 1970s and 1980s, this arrangement virtually guaranteed every Democratic Senator (whether freshman or senior) at least one subcommittee chairpersonship. This change was also reflected in the committee assignments of individual Senators. In 1957, each individual Senator had served an average of 2.8 committees and 6.3 subcommittees, while by 1973 each individual Senator served on an average of 3.9 committees and 11.9 subcommittees.

Staff assignments also became very important in the Senate. In 1957, the Senate was served by a staff of something like 300. By 1975, this number had risen to well over 1,000. What's more, by the 1970s staff positions became increasingly controlled by subcommittees, rather than by committees. Obviously this also substantially increased the authority and influence of younger members of the Senate who now usually controlled at least one subcommittee.

As in the House, the changes which occurred in the Senate over the last several decades reflect the conflicting influence of the trends toward both centralization and decentralization. The new Congressional budget procedures have tended to strengthen the role of centralized Senatorial leadership. And the easy availability of national television coverage, together with the new role of the Senate as an incubator for presidential candidates, has moved the attention of many Senators toward a more national constituency.

On the other hand, the increased number and importance of subcommittees served to disperse power among individual Senators. In some ways, this latter trend may have served to increase the representative function of the Senate. In many other ways, this process of dispersion of power has served to increase the grip of special interests on Congressional decision making.

As we have seen, the Constitution was designed in part in an attempt to limit the powers of the central government and to preserve the powers of the people and the states. This basic thrust toward decentralization was quite effective when our society functioned locally and our economy was basically agricultural. In today's complex industrial society, however, we have a great need for governance and administration on the national and even global level. This obviously requires more effective centralized leadership. If Congress remains decentralized and ineffective, power in government is likely to continue to shift in the direction of the Executive Branch--as it has for the most of the twentieth century.

The struggle which we have been examining between the trends toward centralization and decentralization within Congress, and within the national government as a whole, is likely to continue unabated for the foreseeable future. Like so many other conflicts within our national government, it reflects the continuing attempt to take governmental institutions and philosophies developed during the 1700s and to adopt them to the political, economic, and social realities of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. How well this process of adaptation continues to work in practice will determine our future both as individual and as a society.

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