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How Different Will the Congress Really Be?

When Congress convenes Tuesday, some things will have changed: 121 new faces have won election to the House and Senate. The end of "divided government" is in sight. The notorious House bank has closed. And lawmakers will be counting on bold leadership from Bill Clinton, who moves into the White House two weeks later.

But some features that fueled the recent congressional disrepute will remain the same: The House and Senate leaders and most committee chairmen who presided over the stubborn gridlock of the past four years remain at the helm. A prominent senator faces investigation for sexual harassment. And, in time-honored tradition, most members will struggle to fill their local pork barrel.

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As a skeptical public waits for government to tackle persistent economic and social problems and to get the nation moving again, it is far from clear how sweeping will be the "change" that politicians promised during the 1992 campaign. Like many features of modern American politics, the overhaul may be more style than substance.

Judging by the limited evidence in the two months since the election, there has been little shift from business-as-usual on Capitol Hill. The herd of freshmen, who had promised to storm the barricades, instead became far more restrained and polite when they made their initial appearances to organize the new Congress.

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As they bid for choice committee assignments, they were mindful of the setback suffered by Luis Gutierrez, a freshman House Democrat from Chicago. His campaign for a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee was short-circuited when he confronted party leaders about the need to reform the House.

A similar circumspection has seized the four new women in the Senate, who in their campaigns often recounted their anger over the Senate's treatment of Anita Hill when she testified against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. None was eager to step forward to join the Senate Ethics Committee, which will be weighing the sexual-harassment charges against Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore.

To show their responsiveness to recent internal problems, House Democrats have sought credit for eliminating a handful of subcommittees and for creating the new position of House administrator to provide professional management of the institution. Neither reform, however, is likely to fascinate the voters, nor will these changes have much dramatic impact on legislative output.

Even with Mr. Clinton's support, the outlook is uncertain for changes in the federal election campaign law, including steps to reduce the power of special-interest groups, and more deep-seated changes in how Congress operates. Now that they can no longer depend on a presidential veto, many Democrats will be more reluc- tant to favor legislation that rescinds incumbents' perquisites.

As for new domestic policies, most Democrats have been waiting for Mr. Clinton and hoping that his political magic will cast a spell that will resolve their past problems. They understand that they face a partisan imperative to produce. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md., described in a pre-election interview his "sense of excitement" over the challenges facing the Democrats. "We have been through 12 years of sheer torture. . . . Now, I think that we can show the country that we can govern."

After blaming Republican presidents for the failures of the past dozen years, they no longer will have such a convenient scapegoat. Many of them candidly acknowledge that they will be on the front line in the 1994 election, when the voters have their first major opportunity since 1980 to hold one party accountable for Washington's performance.

"The American public will look to us to produce," said Rep. Robert T. Matsui, D-Calif., who warned of the "peril" if Democrats fail.

Their task will not be an easy one. Take health care, for example, an issue on which House and Senate Democratic leaders separately held countless private meetings during the past year to craft a party position. Having failed to break the deadlock, they are now counting on Mr. Clinton and his aides to rescue them.

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"The difference will be that we have someone with clout to referee our conflicts," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., who chairs the House Democratic Caucus. "Most members want these issues solved and they know that it will take leadership."

But some Democrats lately have tempered their enthusiasm and have scaled back expectations while they caution that it will take least two years to approve health-care reform.

To prove their mettle, Democrats plan to move quickly this year ** to pass some form of an economic package. But will they use this bill to cut middle-class taxes or to raise taxes on the wealthy? It could be either, neither or both. And will they revise the budget to emphasize new domestic spending to stimulate )) the private sector or will they begin a long-term effort to tackle the deficit? Again, make your bet.

After more discussions with congressional leaders, Mr. Clinton is expected to make those decisions by early February. If he waits much longer, the public may soon grow restless.

Mr. Hoyer predicted that Mr. Clinton and congressional Democrats will hold many private meetings to prepare the outlines of major legislation before it is unveiled. "Clinton wants input from Congress," he said. "He takes the politics and the issues and he puts them together as well as anyone I have seen." Mr. Hoyer compared Mr. Clinton's legislative skill to that of former Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel, with whom Mr. Hoyer worked closely in the 1970s as state House speaker.

Not all of the communication from Congress will make Mr. Clinton's job easier. On the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement and other trade issues, he will be pressured from several different angles.

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Although some Democrats such as Ways and Means chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., generally favor a free-trade approach, Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., and others will

continue to push strongly, as they did under Presidents Reagan and Bush, for special protections for beleaguered American industries. "There will be only a limited time before Gephardt and his allies will want to feel that Clinton is addressing their concerns," said a congressional trade expert.

Even when the president's party also has controlled Congress, 20th century history shows that bursts of major legislative activity are relatively brief -- a few months, perhaps. The most successful periods were probably under Franklin Roosevelt in 1933-34, Lyndon Johnson in 1964-65 and Ronald Reagan in 1981. Jimmy Carter made a big push in 1977 for economic, energy and other legislation. But his momentum proved short-lived, even though Democrats had much stronger control of Congress than they do now.

Legislative prospects may be made more difficult by the many freshmen who are relatively unfamiliar with the details. Mr. Clinton and congressional leaders have a delicate task as they attempt to harness their enthusiasm without delaying the handling of these issues.

Many first-term legislators have said that they want to reduce the power of the senior members and to reform the balky ways in which Congress operates. Some of those proposed changes could benefit Mr. Clinton. For example, he has requested that Congress give him "line-item" veto power over spending approved by Congress. But key committee chairmen have objected to this plan, which would weaken their influence.

Some of the biggest change in Congress -- not all of it necessarily good -- will result from the imminent departure of three committee chairmen who have been chosen for top posts in the Clinton administration.

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Lloyd Bentsen, the prospective treasury secretary, will be replaced as Senate Finance Committee chairman by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y. Ronald V. Dellums, D-Calif., is likely to become House Armed Services Committee chairman, replacing Les Aspin, who is Mr. Clinton's choice for defense secretary. And the departure of Leon E. Panetta to become Office Of Management and Budget director has triggered a battle to replace him as House Budget Committee chairman; the expected winner for that slot is Rep. Martin Olav Sabo, D-Minn.

In each case, a relatively untested liberal would replace a proven moderate who has shown the ability to work with a broad range of members. The ironic result of these switches might be considerable problems for Democratic leaders as they try to find the votes needed to pass Mr. Clinton's agenda.

Another potential source of difficulty for Mr. Clinton will be congressional Republicans. Now that they have been freed of the responsibility for governing, they probably will be quick to point out shortcomings or inconsistencies in the Democrats' actions.

So, yes, the new Congress will be different. But the jury is out on whether the results will satisfy the restless electorate.

Richard Cohen is congressional correspondent for National Journal.



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