Congress and Common Sense

By Mason, David | The World and I, March 1997 | Go to article overview

Congress and Common Sense


Mason, David, The World and I


Congressional leaders will work harder to communicate with the American people.

The 105th Congress includes the first successive Republican majorities since the 1920s: a time beyond memory of most living Americans.

The continuation of GOP control gives House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott a historic opportunity to set a new policy agenda and to reshape Congress and the American government. Narrow majorities (19 votes in the House and 5 in the Senate) will require them to be careful but will not prevent them from being ambitious.

A constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget heads the congressional agenda, followed by a full plate of legislative and procedural reforms. Comparing this year's slow start to the hectic 100 days of the 104th Congress provides a misleading introduction to what promises to be an active, productive, and perhaps even historic Congress.

The political dashes of 1995 and '96 obscured remarkable accomplishments. Congress reformed itself, cutting committees, slashing staff, and applying private-sector laws to itself for the first time ever.

Welfare was reformed fundamentally, the health insurance system changed significantly, and, for the first time in a quarter century, Congress cut discretionary federal spending.

Many accomplishments represented Congress giving up power, an act virtually unnatural for politicians. Unfunded mandates legislation works to prevent Congress from running roughshod over the states, and the line-item veto significantly strengthens presidential power to reduce spending.

These reforms represent the most fundamental shills in governmental power since the Watergate era. The new Congress may do even more to change the federal government's relations with states, citizens, and businesses.

Role reversals

Republicans retained Congress narrowly in the 1996 elections, leading to changed roles. President Clinton is wondering whether he can make history rather than asking himself if he is even relevant.

Within Congress, initiative has shifted from the House to the Senate. GOP losses in the House, along with Speaker Gingrich's weakened political position, make the political direction of the House uncertain. Committee chairmen are certain to play stronger roles in the next two years, and their plans, while significant, are not as striking as the Contract with America.

In contrast, the new Senate is, according to Lott, the most conservative since the body was led by "Mr. Conservative," Bob Taft of Ohio, in the late 1940s and early '50s. In fact, by party ratio, the new Senate is the most Republican since the one elected in 1928. The 1996 elections brought a two-seat Republican pickup, producing a 55-member majority. More significant, a number of moderate Republicans who retired were replaced by far more conservative GOPers. The Senate's ideological balance shifted by five or six votes, producing a conservative majority on most issues.

Opening his first Senate as leader, Lott is clearly poised to take control. New Republican conference rules have allowed him to engineer a unified party agenda, and he is working with committee chairmen to smooth out the Senate's perpetually tangled schedule.

Lessons learned

Despite a reinvigorated President Clinton and the reduced House majority, the new Congress may improve its performance because of lessons its leaders learned in the last two years. Ignoring the president is an unworkable strategy. Instead, Lott and Gingrich will attempt to join serious budget discussions early by waiting for the president's budget and treating it seriously when it comes.

The new Congress may choose to confront or to cooperate with the president by turns, depending largely on Clinton's positions, but congressional leaders will not attempt to change national policies without engaging the chief executive.

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