104th Congress to Be Remembered as Historic, Histrionic: While GOP Hails Achievements, Democrats Cite Mean-Spiritedness

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When historians remember the the 104th Congress, it will likely go down as the one that began reducing the size and scope of government and was the first to tackle the politically perilous question of how to check runaway entitlement spending.

When House Speaker Newt Gingrich bangs the gavel closing the 104th Congress, this weekend or early next week, it will have:

* Unraveled President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Agricultural Adjustment Administration, a program Congress passed in 1933 that sought to raise farm prices by giving subsidies to farmers who agreed to reduce production of certain commodities. Congress passed a seven-year farm bill that weans corporate farmers from price supports in a series of decreasing payments. It also eliminates planting restrictions, allowing farmers to rotate their crops as they choose.

* Overhauled welfare, repealing major social-service programs, including Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which gives cash assistance to about 14 million poor people. The new law gives to states cash grants and concomitant leeway to develop their own assistance programs for the poor. It also requires the 26 million who receive food stamps to work for them. It denies benefits to legal aliens awaiting citizenship.

* Revamped 60-year-old telecommunication laws, using competition rather than regulation as a means of delivering telecommunications services - including cable TV and on-line services - less expensively. It requires telephone companies to share their phone lines with competitors.

President Clinton signed all three of these massive and historic reforms into law this year.

Republicans have had less than two years to shape laws since they assumed control of Congress in January 1995 after the watershed election of 1994 that saw every Republican incumbent re-elected and brought 73 GOP freshmen to the House.

"I see the theme as cleaning up after the Democrats," House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas said in an interview. "They said it couldn't be done."

Rep. Dan Miller, Florida Republican, said the new Congress spent less on discretionary programs - the nuts and bolts of government, such as defense, space exploration, highway and road construction, and medical research - than the previous Democratic Congress.

"It's an historic turn for the federal government," he said, adding that it was the first time that had occurred since 1969.

The 104th Congress spent $53 billion less on discretionary programs than the 103rd Congress.

That does not include entitlements like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and interest on the national debt, which together account for nearly two-thirds of the $1.5 trillion annual federal budget.

Congress eliminated 320 programs and reduced by 11 percent the cost of running Congress by privatizing services like the House barbershop and the newsletter-folding room and ending other services altogether. It also dismissed 14 full-time workers who delivered buckets of ice to each congressional office.

Mr. Armey said Republicans achieved what Democrats could not when they controlled Congress.

"Then, after 40 years, we were the brand-new kids on the block, who had never even had our hand on the lever in our lives," Mr. Armey said. "And we did it."

Rep. John Dingell, Michigan Democrat, recalls the 104th Congress quite differently.

"This will be remembered as one of the meanest-spirited, nastiest Congresses in the history of the United States," Mr. Dingell said.

An exhausting opening year saw House Republicans move to enact legislation in their highly publicized Contract with America as promised in the first 100 days.

Many of the components eventually passed, some after being diluted from their original House form. Others died by presidential vetoes.

Republicans held the first-ever vote on a constitutional amendment imposing term limits, but fell well short of the two-thirds majorities required in the House and Senate. …