A Congress to Remember

Article excerpt

Thermidor, the name of the month in the French Revolutionary Calendar in which Robespierre fell and the Reign of Terror ended, has become the name by which historians denote an era of waning revolutionary ardor. Conservative critics of the 104th Congress complain that it went directly from the ancien regime to Thermidor, without any intervening revolution.

The deflation of their aspirations is symbolized by Newt Gingrich brandishing buckets in which ice had been delivered to congressional offices since before the invention of refrigeration. The Commerce and Education departments may not be finished, but ice deliveries are, so there.

Some depressed conservatives - one of them calls the 104th "the Bush administration in drag" - may think that the end of the 104th was in its beginning. Its opening day hoopla included a children's party featuring the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Newt Gingrich. Back then it was hard to have any Washington gathering of two or more without having the speaker speak. At this party he stuffed into the wee minds this explanation of the event's Larger Meaning: "We wanted the Power Rangers here because they're multiethnic role models in which women and men play equally strong roles." There has been too much blather, much of it from Gingrich, who has paid dearly for his refusal to heed the advice given to him - often - that he ration the portions of himself that he serves to the public. Still, measuring the 104th against history rather than its own rhetoric, it was remarkably consequential. Intelligent people differ concerning the 104th's most important act - repeal of a 60-year-old entitlement to welfare. But the repeal ranks with the 1981 tax cuts, Medicare, the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts and the Taft-Hartley Act as one of the most momentous legislative acts of the last six decades. The 104th has demonstrated the constitutional fact of congressional supremacy. Bill Clinton began his presidency talking only about "reinventing" government so that it could be more efficient while doing more. He now accepts, at least rhetorically, that government should do less. Regarding spending, the actions of the 104th have been more conservative than even the aspirations of the Reagan administration. …