Ready for Round Two? the Achievements of the 104th Congress

By Lindberg, Tod | Policy Review, September-October 1996 | Go to article overview

Ready for Round Two? the Achievements of the 104th Congress


Lindberg, Tod, Policy Review


Of all the passions that distort one's view of politics, the greatest, I think, is the desire for closure, the yearning for some golden moment at which it can be said, "Well, that's the end of that." The jury announcing its verdict, the emissaries of a defeated power signing the papers of unconditional surrender, the poker player beating a full house with four of a kind -- decisive and final.

Perhaps it's understandable. Our politics does have built-in cycles with closure of a sort, namely, elections. Every four years, we have an opportunity to elect a new president or affirm the tenure of the one we have; every two years, we have a new Congress. And the outcome of these elections is rarely ambiguous. Candidate A wins or loses. The House has this many Republicans and that many Democrats. Moreover, the legislative process itself has various endpoints: the moments after the committee report and the floor vote and the conference and the bill-signing ceremony in the Rose Garden, just as the civics textbooks say.

But even here, closure in politics is overblown. In politics, little is ever settled once and for all. The day after the election is the first day of the next election cycle. So you got a bill passed? Fine. Now an army of bureaucrats will begin writing the regulations and other means of enforcing it; the courts will begin pondering its meaning; the lawmakers themselves, aided by an army of lobbyists and other interested parties, will prepare for the next go-round. Politics ebbs and flows. Victory and defeat are never permanent. "Endism"--the yearning for closure--often amounts to substituting one's political fantasies for reality.

The essential fact of the 104th Congress is that, as the first GOP Congress in 40 years, it did not live up to the expectations it helped create. Many of its members rode into town two years ago promising nothing less than "revolution." But the budget is not balanced, nor is there a constitutional amendment requiring that it be balanced. There has been no tax relief for families with children, no cut in the capital-gains tax rate, no expanded Individual Retirement Accounts. Nor have we seen fundamental reform in Medicaid for the poor and Medicare for the elderly: Most of the vast entitlement apparatus stands untouched. Broad regulatory relief remains elusive.

Was the 104th Congress, then, a failure? The position of the Democratic Party sounds like this: The Republicans vastly misinterpreted the results of the 1994 elections that brought them to power. They claimed a broad mandate for change where none existed. Moreover, they were never candid about the specifics of the changes they intended to make. Once the details began to emerge, in the Democratic view, the American people recoiled from the Republicans' extremist positions. Popular opinion turned against this new Congress and its living embodiment, House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Republican expectations that their party would sweep the 1995 off-year elections turned out to be wrong. President Clinton stood up to the GOP legislative blackmail represented by two shutdowns of the federal government. The people responded by supporting him in opinion polls. The Republicans, reeling and desperate, finally gave up. Democrats prepared to take their case to the people in the fall elections, with an excellent chance, they say, of retaining the White House and regaining the Congress, as people think more about what GOP bombthrowers have been trying to do to American society and government.

This telling is also the version offered by the establishment media. I will leave it to future historians to determine whether the Democratic line and the establishment media's analysis coincide so well because they simply reflect the truth of the situation, or for some other reason. You can also hear this interpretation in certain Republican circles, such as when Al D'Amato launched his celebrated screed against Gingrich, his Contract, and GOP extremism in the spring of 1996.

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