Capitol Gain: What Republicans Will Do If They Win the Congress

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Suppose we wake up on the morning of Wednesday, November 9 this year and discover that the Republicans have won. Really won. Say, 40 seats or more in the House and seven or more in the Senate. Suppose, in otherwords, the 104th Congress of the United States has Republican majorities in both chambers. Then what? What difference would GOP control make?

This isn't a completely idle question. By one way of reckoning, opposition parties pick up an average of 18 House seats in the mid-term elections. And there are a number of reasons the GOP might be expected to out-perform that average this November.

The GOP has done exceptionally well in by-elections since November 1992. When he took over as party chairman, Haley Barbour insisted that the Republican National Committee would focus on 1994 and the contests leading up to it, not on the presidential election in 1996. So far, from the Republican point of view, so good - a Senate seat in Texas, a House seat in Oklahoma, another in Kentucky, as well as a number of victories in state and local elections, including the New Jersey and Virginia governorships and the New York City, and Los Angeles mayoralties. Democratic spin doctors have insisted that, all politics being local, it's a mistake to read any national trends into these results. Republicans, on the other hand, have suggested that the results reflect broader disenchantment with the president and traditional Democratic Party solutions to national problems.

The president is personally unpopular. President Clinton took office having won with 43 percent of the vote, which is hardly a majority, but is slightly higher than the percentage Richard Nixon garnered in 1968. Still, Clinton's approval ratings early in his term were unprecedentedly low, and they have remained low. Two major scandals, Whitewater and Troopergate, have yet to play out fully, with the potential for further erosion in his support. Moreover, the public reception to his major policy initiatives (his so-called S500 billion deficit reduction plan, health care) has formed a pattern: an initial burst of enthusiasm that relatively quickly dissipates, then mounting opposition. This is the mark of poor salesmanship or a poor product, maybe both. If all of this continues, GOP has all opportunity to the extent that a local candidate can be portrayed as a Clinton surrogate.

Congress is unpopular. Polls indicate near-record levels of distrust, and support for term limits remains high (even if they are constitutionally problematic). The Politburo-like reelection percentages of the past, reflecting the advantages of incumbency, are gone. Even primary, challenges are a problem for incumbents, not only because they sometimes succeed, but even when they fail: They can be expensive and they may draw blood, which can weaken a candidate in the general election. The 103rd Congress has 110 new members, a turnover of more than 25 percent. Turnover for the 104th Congress - owing to retirement, primary loss or a decision to seek other office - as of this writing already stands at 47.

Republicans have so far been unable to lay the nation's problems at the door of the Democratic leadership or the Democratic majority of Congress. Nor have they been successful blaming the dominance of one party for such congressional scandals as check-kiting and illegality at the House Post Office. Republicans had high hopes for a specifically anti-democratic backlash, but it has failed to materialize in any significant way in the polls. What has taken hold, however, is the notion that a scandal-ridden Congress isn't properly dealing with the nation's problems. And even if all incumbent members of the House and Senate who are facing the voters this term feel its effects equally, that's a net loss for the current majority.

The freshman class is huge. As 1986 took its toll on the weaker members of the crop of GOP senators elected in the 1980 Reagan landslide, so may 1994 take its highest toll upon weaker representatives as well as those least adept at discerning and exploiting the advantages of incumbency. Again, even assuming this affects all freshmen equally, it hurts more Democrats than Republicans.

Republicans are running more candidates. You can't beat a horse with no horse, as the saying goes. The most striking results have been in the House, where Bill Paxon of New York has directed the efforts of the National Republican Congressional Committee. According to Federal Election Commission figures, the number of GOP challengers to incumbent Democrats rose from 117 in 1988 to 263 in 1994, while Democratic challenges to incumbent Republicans actually decreased from 140 to 136 in the same period. Perhaps Bill Clinton's example has been inspirational: When he began his run, it was against an incumbent whose approval rating was then in excess of 80 percent. Republicans are beginning to realize that the only case in which you truly haven't got a prayer is when you stay out of the race altogether.

There are more competitive Democratic seats than competitive Republican seats. The formula used by the respected Cook Political Report indicates that 72 House seats currently held by Democrats are competitive, whereas 32 GOP seats are. In other words, if Democrats and Republicans each manage to hold on to the same number of competitive seats, the result is a 40-seat swing to the GOP.

Are all of these factors enough to produce GOP majorities, The one thing that's certain is that it is far safer on the cocktail party circuit to predict continued Democratic dominance. Still, something is new in GOP circles on the Hill this year. As never before in memory, Republicans are thinking about victory, imagining its possibilities and implications, planning, even, on what to do when it comes - if not now, then soon. And, of course, the first essential step in winning is wanting to win.

Legislative Blitzkrieg

Newt Gingrich, who will take over for Robert Michel as GOP House leader, has proposed putting together a plan for "the first 90 days" - a legislative blitzkrieg designed to define a distinctly Republican national agenda. The House Republican Conference, which is chaired by Representative Dick Armey, is working up the plan, which is slated for a September unveiling. If it comes together properly, it might become a quasi-platform for the 1994 elections, something Republican candidates can take to voters and say, "This is what you'll get if you elect a Republican Congress." If the message is right, it may achieve something that has been altogether elusive, namely "nationalizing" congressional elections. That hasn't really happened since 1980, and you'd have to go back 20 years, to the post-Watergate election of 1974, to find an instance of it in an off-year.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the Republican Conference has also been working on a plan for the awesome task of reconfiguring a Republican House. The issues are such matters as what kind of committee and subsommittee structure, what kind of staffing, what to do about entities under congressional control ranging from the Congressional Budget Office to the Capitol Police.

The staffing issues alone are mind-boggling. For example, Representative John Kasich's House Budget Committee minority staff produces every year, among many other things, a full-scale GOP substitute budget that can be "scored" - i.e., tested for the validity of its revenue and spending numbers according to the technical criteria of the Congressional Budget Office. The Budget Committee minority staff consists of all of 11 people. The Budget Committee majority staff numbers 41. Assuming no changes in overall congressional staffing levels - an assumption that will prove erroneous if Republicans make good on their rhetoric about bloated congressional staffs - and assuming current majority-minority staff ratios, Democrats will have the interesting experience of deciding which 30 people to let go, and Republicans will be looking for the same number of the best resumes they can find.

If you multiply this effect by the entire Congress, you are talking about A) a whole lot of Democratic unemployment claims and B) an explosion in demand for capable Republicans. (I would prefer a staffing formula devised, in the interest of fairness and fiscal probity, as follows: maintaining the current majority-minority staff ratios, but zero increase in total GOP positions. What could be more fiscally responsible; What could be more fair? And it would indeed be entertaining to see what a Democratic minority Budget Committee staff of three persons could produce.)

The planning is urgently needed, and no doubt, no matter how thoroughly it is done, there will a fair bit of turmoil. The next question is what, in terms of substantive policy and legislation, will come out of it.

First 90 Days

There are a number of issues that quickly come into play. First and most important, there is going to be a Democrat in the White House through 1996. That means two years of divided government. A GOP congressional majority in the 104th Congress will not have the luxury of a president of its own party whose agenda it can help shape and then ratify. The Republican majority will be on its own.

Consequently, we can expect a certain amount of intense angling for the informal position of Republican "Big Kahuna," and that in turn will be playing out against the backdrop of a coming presidential election in which no one is likely to have emerged as the clear front-runner, let alone to have the nomination sewn up. Inevitably, policy. clashes will not be resolved solely on the merits. The additional factor of who is associated with which policy agenda will come into play. A vote for something may constitute a vote for someone. If you vote to enact elements of the "empowerment" agenda, such as restoring funds to privatize public housing, are you de facto furthering the presidential aspirations of Jack Kemp? Will Phil Gramm and Bob Dole offer competing policy prescriptions to go along with their competing presidential aspirations? A "First 90 Days" plan will help, but out of the tussle of intra-part;, ambitions, will a consensus legislative agenda emerge?

We, also have to ask what, in substantive terms, it really means to be a Republican these days. If not around a particular leader, is there a core set of principles around which a legislative agenda will coalesce? The GOP House conference has been moving right over the years. And the moderate leader of the House, Robert Michel, will be gone. But the Senate's direction, if any is less clear. Bob Dole's leadership style has been mercurial. No one could fault his performance during the 1993 budget fight. He seemed to be having the time of his life, and he did much to shake the party out of its post-election state of shell shock. There was no question at the time that he was the Republican leader, and he was also the nation's leading Republican. But that was the high-water mark of GOP unity and leadership in the Senate. The GOP has seemed almost balkanized since then, each member setting out on his own, a phenomenon that has magnified political differences within the part. Those differences can be fairly large, not only in the Senate but also in the House. The scenario under discussion here, already at the outer-edge of probability, is a narrow GOP victory - not, say, a 235-200 majority, in the House and a 54-46 majority in the Senate. The only room for GOP defection will come from the ability to recruit Democrats to a GOP agenda. Let's say that's not much. What, if anything, can 218 of 218 Republicans agree on?

Finding the "Cockroaches"

Moreover, if Ronald Reagan had his "Boll Weevil" Democrats, Bill Clinton is apt to work to find his "Cockroach" Republicans, to coin a term. The executive branch has numerous rewards at its disposal and can be counted on to exploit them.

In this respect, however, Republican unanimity against President Clinton's 1993 budget plan (and the successful effort in the Senate to scuttle his economic "stimulus" package of pork barrel spending, achieved with no GOP defections) does count for something. In addition, conservative Democrats have been willing to stand up to their president and their leaders on some issues. They have done so, in some cases, at considerable personal cost. They would now face the prospect of reward from GOP leaders in Congress (who will not be without goodies) instead of merely punishment from their president and their congressional leaders.

Then there is the potential "X" factor of GOP unity. Call it Wellington at Waterloo - the historic dimension of the victory.

On their Best Behavior

The mere fact of Republican victory - the sense, perhaps, of the magnitude of national political realignment and the arrival of the Republican majority - would be occasion, one hopes, for Republicans to be on their best behavior. After 40 years in the wilderness, the occasion would demand a serious, unified alternative to the welfare-state liberalism that has been predominant in Congress throughout the period. I do not accept the consensus among the punditry that Republicans enjoyed de facto control of Congress for much of the first Reagan administration. Reagan did, to be sure, get significant legislation passed. But the notion that Reagan got everything he wanted - or everything he would have received had there been a Republican speaker - is plainly wrong. The administration did not lack political will to restrain federal spending and even to terminate some government programs. It lacked the votes to do so. The real test, of course, will come with the arrival of an actual Republican Congress and a Republican president. If that combination produces results no different from those achieved during the first Reagan administration, I won't be alone in my disappointment.

For purposes of argument, let's assume that Republicans do unite, having managed to agree on what will cure the things that ail the country. The next issue is political strategy. The White House belongs to their political enemy. Moreover, President Clinton has a well-established record of bending to the will of Congress - letting the congressional majority, through its leadership, make the final decisions on legislation, then signing the result and declaring victory for the White House. Should Republicans go to the trouble of saving the country so Bill Clinton can claim credit? On the other hand, would it not be irresponsible to hold the nation hostage to partisan political gain?

Take the case of departing Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, arguably the most partisan number of the Senate. During the Bush administration, the president, virtually every known Republican, and, indeed, enough Democrats to form majorities in both the Senate and the House agreed that the economy would benefit from a cut in the tax rate on capital gains. Mitchell said no, stopping the effort cold. He cited "fairness," then the buzzword of choice for liberal Democrats. As to what Senator Mitchell thought the economic effects of a capital gains tax cut would be, the historical record is silent. To me, however, it is not the least inconceivable that Mitchell recognized the potential (though unfair) economic benefits. And he would not allow the economy to reap those benefits, particularly because the wrong people would gain the most, on George Bush's watch. The whole affair was actually just the most conspicuous instance of the Democratic stake in "gridlock."

Tit for tat, anyone? Revenge? The sentiment is surely present in numerous quarters of the congressional GOP. Doing the most (by their lights) that they can for the good of the country while preventing claims of success by the incumbent administration will require deft maneuvering.

With these chessboard political calculations in mind, it's time to ask what policy changes we can expect from a Republican Congress. In terms of how we live our lives and our society is ordered, what difference would GOP control really make?

"Egregiously Bad"

For starters, egregiously bad lawmaking, from the GOP point of view, will cease. As a minority party, Republicans in the 103rd Congress have been unable to derail much of the Democratic legislative agenda at all. The first, last, and only unequivocally clear win was the death of the "stimulus" package. One could argue that Republicans effectively targeted the Clinton health care reform plan, which is now dead. But this, I think, would be to mistake the Clinton administration agenda for the Democratic agenda. Democrats can be satisfied and may yet find themselves in a position to be satisfied with something very different from Ira Magaziner's folly - something calling itself "more moderate" but still an enormous expansion of government control over one-seventh of the U.S. economy. It is far too soon to declare any sort of GOP victory.

By "egregiously bad from the GOP point of view," I have in mind such things as Hatch Act reform (which allows federal workers to become more active in partisan politics, to the obvious benefit of the Democratic Party); the motor voter mandate (an outrageous intrusion into the fights of states to regulate voter registration requirements, and once again, legislation targeted at a group Democrats believe to be part of their natural constituency); the "assault" weapons ban (an exercise in symbolic politics that will accomplish nothing and, upon accomplishing nothing, will serve as the basis for further gun restrictions that will likewise accomplish nothing); locality pay for the federal workforce (a convenient way to disguise raises in a tight fiscal climate); the abortion clinic access bill (a suspension of free speech in the interest of providing a rare statutory - as opposed to judicial - acknowledgment of abortion rights); and family and medical leave (an employer mandate that is tone-deaf to the needs of the workplace and principally of benefit to those who are affluent enough to afford time off from work).

Those are things that have actually passed as of this writing. There's worse under active consideration now or still to come. A filibuster in the Senate blocking a bill that bans permanent replacement of striking workers - a major gift to Big Labor, perhaps even enough to reverse the long decline of trade unions in this country - was being held together with chewing gum and rubber bands at the end of May. The House had attached to its version of the crime bill the so-called Racial justice Act, which would mean the end of the death penalty, and also point the way toward non-capital sentencing based on race.

And then, who knows; Some people at the National Rifle Association think a national one-gun-per-month limit - as well as a major squeeze on gun dealers - might be next on the minds of the anti-gun lobby. The Freedom of Choice Act probably can't ever pass, but the success of the clinic-access bill suggests that there will be further efforts to codify the pro-abortion agenda and silence the pro-life movement. Additional mandates on employers are sure to come; strapped for cash for programs of its own, Congress has found it expedient to make employers provide and pay for programs.

Dangerous VAT

The taxation agenda of the Democratic Party will remain incomplete so long as the United States lacks a value-added tax or national sales tax. A naked VAT probably could not pass even under current circumstances. I am not so sure, however, about a VAT accompanied by some tax cut. Consider a package - let's call it the "Middle Class and Family, Tax Relief Act." The first and most heavily. promoted provision is a tax cut in the form of a fairly large increase in personal and dependent allowances. Lawmakers will make a point of not mentioning that the allowance will no longer be indexed for inflation. In addition, there would be a VAT of a couple of pennies per dollar in the name of taxing consumption, encouraging savings and "paying for" something such as health care that people are thought to want. Finally, there would be a further expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit to compensate for the VAT paid by poorer people.

Such a package would be a very dangerous combination. It would be enacted with the full expectation of most of those voting for it that the VAT rate would increase penny by penny, over time, more than compensating for the increased value in the allowance, which would erode over time with inflation. It might be just the recipe for a major upward ratcheting - to levels in line with the sclerotic welfare states of Europe - of the percentage of gross domestic product consumed by the government. That, in turn, would enable government to extend its reach much farther and in new directions.

I will admit to a certain poverty of the imagination when it comes to thinking up things Congress might do. This is a problem quite widespread among conservatives. Along comes a provision in the crime bill that provides federal money for midnight basketball leagues - in other words, a pro ram that will actually keep kids away from home and on the streets until three o'clock in the morning - and I say to myself, "You've got to be kidding." But, of course, they're not kidding, those members of Congress who take it upon themselves to legislate such things. They see the coercive power of the state not as an awesome thing to be wielded with humility and with reverence for the liberty of their fellow citizens, but as something properly used to enforce not just their ideas about social justice but their whims. Midnight basketball?

All of the nonsense and worse of this sort would stop under a majority Republican Congress. Even though there are some Republicans who have fetishes of their own along the lines of midnight basketball, the ability, to indulge them is likely to be crushed by the preponderance of conservative opinion.

Though conservatives sometimes have their big-government bad days and their particular enthusiasms, generally speaking these are not shared and will be rooted out by mainstream Republican opinion, which is conservative. At a minimum, "conservative" means unwilling to march off in new directions under the banner of activist government.

A Positive Agenda

If the preceding is the negative agenda, what about the positive agenda? Again, political strategy and tactics are a consideration. Some have suggested a polarizing strategy in which the Democratic president is forced into the position of being the obstacle preventing Capitol Hill Republicans from doing things the American people want. Along these lines, Congress would pass viciously polarizing but popular legislation that President Clinton would have to veto. A friend who is likely to be a player in the next Republican administration merrily suggests something along the lines of "The $2,000 Per Child Tax Credit Mandatory School Prayer Act. "

More likely, Republicans will want to do two things right away: Cut taxes and cut spending.

The first question is whether or not these things will be done together. The interest of the Clinton administration will be to sever them. Candidate Clinton promised a middle-class tax cut in the 1992 campaign, and the president almost certainly will push for one in the 104th Congress in time for his reelection bid, regardless of who is in charge. He might even be willing to pay for it with some combination of further tax increases on business or "the rich" and further paring in defense, if possible. But he will want to fight significant spending cuts in areas that affect his Democratic constituency.

A Republican Congress would probably present him with a package in which tax relief is accompanied by offsetting cuts in domestic spending only, such that the result is "deficit neutral." This approach would be consistent with the rules of budgeting that are currently in place (rules that, in the longer run, Republicans want to change).

Republicans have actually become rather adept at playing the budget game by the Democrats' rules. The proof of this is in recent House GOP substitute budgets. The 1993 version provided the same $500 billion in "deficit reduction" over five years that the administration offered, but without any tax increases. In other words, it cut spending. And - most important of all - it was not just Republican say-so attesting to the GOP budget's legitimacy as a spending-cutter. To be ruled "in order" at all - i.e., to be eligible, in the judgment of the Democratic-leadership controlled Rules Committee, for a vote by the House as a true "substitute" for the Clinton bill - any bill had to pass the muster of the Congressional Budget Office. It had to be "scored," and the CBO has little patience for vague spending-cut formulations, unspecified caps in funding, and so on. The GOP substitute passed the CBO test last year.

The critical point is that Democrats, including those in the administration, have a long record of stated commitment to such principles. They would have a difficult time rejecting out of hand a Republican budget crafted in accordance with them. The 1994 version included a $500 tax credit per child for parents earning up to $200,000, which it fully, "paid for" by offsetting reductions in spending. This year's budget received 165 votes, the most any GOP budget alternative has received since 1982.

The 1994 GOP budget is a likely model for a Republican-majority Congress. There will be a skirmish between deficit hawks and anti-tax hawks. The anti-deficit hawks will argue that until the budget deficit comes down, it's a mistake to decrease taxes (though they would make an exception for capital gains). But the anti-tax hawks will win hands down. They will do so first by agreeing to "pay for" every dollar in tax cuts with a dollar in spending cuts, second by pointing to the need to give the American economy a shot in the arm, and third by the persuasive argument that a failure to reduce taxes means acquiescence in "the biggest tax increase in history," namely President Clinton's.

The certain vehicle for a tax cut would be a per-child tax credit. An increase in the value of the dependent exemption for children would be a possible variation on this theme, but it's less likely for the simple reason that it is less visible to the taxpayer: There is something dramatic about money that comes directly off your tax bill once you get to the bottom of the form.

I wouldn't be surprised to see an increase in the value of the exemptions for self and spouse, accompanied with rhetoric about how inflation has eroded the exemption dramatically. If the value of the exemption had kept pace with inflation since the 1950s, it would be worth more than $8,000 today, rather than 1993's $2,350 (even less as the exemption is phased out at higher income levels). But whether or not that happens, the per-child credit is central. The idea of helping or encouraging or rewarding the family has appeal throughout the party. From pro-choice suburban women (to pick a hot-button group for campaign strategists) to pro-life southern evangelicals, everyone is aboard. There's no tricky math: At the GOP's proposed level for 1994, $500 a kid, a family with three children would have $1,500 more per year in its pocketbook. A difference of almost $29 a week in take-home pay is something people would notice.

I would be very surprised to see Republicans make an effort to bring the top tax rate down to what it was before the Clinton increase. That will probably have to wait for a Republican president conducting an overhaul of the system on the scale of the 1986 tax reform. Republicans feel vulnerable on the issue of "tax breaks for the wealthy." And although we have learned a lot more about Clinton family finances just before and during the decade of greed, there would still be major GOP fears of the Clinton counterattack on "fairness" grounds. (We're likely to see the $200,000 income cap for the per-child credit, as well, for the same reason.) The Democrats' gasoline tax increase of 1993 will stay, too, only because there are other taxes Republicans want more urgently to reduce.

A package of tax cuts fully "paid for" by spending cuts, thus in line with deficit targets set by the administration and congressional Democrats, will be a nightmare for the president-unless, of course, he decides to announce that this was his secret plan all along.

The spending-cut mechanisms that have been frustrated by the administration and the Democratic leader- ship would also have their day. The cuts proposed in the Penny-Kasich bill will be made. The "A to Z" proposal, where-by each member of Congress gets to offer a particular spending cut for an up or down vote by the House as a whole, will be employed. (It would be nice if the Senate agreed to vote up or down on the whole ensuing package, without modification, but that might be hoping for too much.) And I think we could expect a balanced budget amendment.

A Nice Ring...

How much the spending cuts would total is hard to say. Republicans would surely present a bigger package of specific cuts than any the Clinton administration has proposed. I'm quite confident a $500 billion package over five years could be put together without much difficulty. (To my ears, however, "trillion" has a nice ring to it.) Big numbers necessarily entail entitlement reform, though. Pursuing that against the wishes of a hostile White House would be very difficult.

Republicans (and for that matter, some conservative Democrats) are also going to want to change some of the rules governing the budget process. The first rule to go will be the application of the Congressional Budget Office's (CBO's) static analysis to capital gains taxes, in particular. The CBO scores a cut in the tax rate on capital gains as a revenue loser. Republicans are convinced that a cut in the rate will raise money, because a lower rate will result in more capital formation. Indexing the basis of the asset for inflation would have a similar effect - and it sidesteps a "fairness" issue. Republicans can say that there is nothing fair about paying taxes on "gains" that merely reflect inflation. I think they will insist on having their indexation at once, and without "paying for" it. A rate cut would probably be a second phase.

A complete rewriting of the rules of budgeting would take some time. I would expect a major effort to end the use of the so-called "current-services baseline" for budget projections. The principle here is to take everything you are doing now under current law and regulations and to assume you will be doing it in the future. Then you compute how much it will cost to do that in future years, based on assumptions made about economic growth, inflation and so on. That's the baseline, and it's usually going up, of course. The trick is that a "spending cut" in Washington is a cut against the baseline, not a reduction in outlays below their level this year. Thus spending actually increases as it is being "cut." In this Congress, Kasich and fiscally conservative Democrats Timothy Penny and Charles Stenholm have introduced legislation that will do away with such baselines as the basis for budgeting. That's the sort of reform a Republican-led Congress would pass quickly, with bipartisan support.

Bottoms Up

Once we get past taxes and spending, the next area in which action is likely to be swift is defense. The consensus view among Republicans is that the Clinton administration is cutting too much, too fast, leaving the United States underprepared for its necessary role in a world that is by no means so benevolent as some hoped immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The administration conducted its "Bottom-Up Review" of defense needs to great fanfare. Unfortunately, however, even the "Bottom-Up Review" has not been fully funded, such has been the effort to squeeze the Pentagon. The GOP point of departure will be insistence on full funding for the capabilities outlined, and it's hard to imagine how the president could fail to agree. But the GOP will want to go further.

In its first budget, the Clinton administration tried to portray itself as cutting defense not radically but modestly. To do so, the administration started with force and spending levels for the next five years that President Bush and joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell had agreed to. Then it cut from there. But the Bush-Powell goals were already optimistic about the savings that could be achieved while maintaining readiness. Cutting beyond that point may constitute major recklessness, in the view of many Republicans, raising the specter of the "hollow army" of the late 1970s. Republicans will probably move quickly in the direction of the force structure and corresponding spending levels to which Bush and Powell agreed. The White House will be hard pressed to say no.

Beyond taxes, spending, and defense, the picture gets murkier. It would be nice to be able to predict that once they were in power in Congress, Republicans would rally around a truly market-oriented health-care plan. However, the Republicans have not been able to do that even in opposition. If nothing passes prior to this year's election and the GOP wins, at a minimum the sense of urgency to get something done at once is dead. That is not nothing.

As to the other major item on the domestic agenda, welfare, some aspects of reform will be easier than others. A major overhaul of the Supplemental Security Income boondoggle would be fairly easy to achieve. Doing something serious about Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) would be much tougher, especially in the face of a White House that still has a veto at its disposal. Mainstream conservative opinion wants to end welfare, period, on the grounds that its expansion has wreaked havoc on the lives of participants, creating an underclass and destroying whole city neighborhoods. But ending AFDC, or radically circumscribing it, would be an extraordinary political task.

Probably some kind of compromise is possible. Again, though at a minimum, the Clintonian end-of-welfare-as-we-know-it, start of massive-government jobs-program-as-we-know-it is dead.

Winning With a Loser

Congress' responsibilities do not end with legislating. The Senate has its "advice and consent" function, and both bodies have their oversight responsibilities.

"Advice and consent" has been a mixed bag in the 103rd Congress. In the early going, there was simply no Republican resistance in the Senate to President Clinton's nominees whatsoever. That changed, up to a point, with Clinton's first nominee for attorney general, Zoe Baird. Interestingly enough, though, the senator who gave her the hardest time at her confirmation hearing was not a Republican, but Judiciary. Committee Chairman Joseph Biden. Serious Republican opposition actually began in the House, whence Newt Gingrich threw a grenade. Then the phone calls and letters about illegal aliens and not paying taxes started pouring in, and Republicans realized they had a winner in making Baird a loser. Democrats, too, who might have allowed themselves to be satisfied with Baird's explanation and repentance at her hearings, let the prevailing winds carry them away from her.

It was clear, however, that Republican senators were not going to engage themselves in trench warfare against Clinton nominees. Their staffs, in some cases, were doing decent opposition research, as were outside groups. And the senators themselves would pick a case here and there with which to concern themselves. By itself, this was enough to induce some caution on the part of a White House that took office utterly deaf to its own radicalism. But it never coalesced into unified GOP opposition.

I don't think the Republican 104th Congress would necessarily be much different. Part of the problem is actually principle: Namely, a widely held view among Republicans that presidents deserve the people they want in their administrations in the absence of clear deficiencies of qualification or character. An increase in raw political power that would come with a Senate majority would change some things, but not everything. What I think is most likely is that the White House will be more cautious in choosing people in an effort to avoid fights. Stephen Breyer's nomination to the Supreme Court is possibly an early example.

If the record suggests that presidential appointments will not change dramatically in the Republican 104th Congress, the same record suggests that oversight is an entirely different matter. For its first two years, the Clinton administration has essentially. escaped serious congressional scrutiny, thanks to the efforts of the Democratic leadership to shut down oversight.

Naked Politics

The nakedness of the politics has not gone unnoticed by Republicans. Precedent after precedent on oversight has been discarded. Serious ethical problems bordering and sometimes crossing over into illegality, at the White House and in Cabinet departments and agencies, have gone uninvestigated - from Whitewater to Travelgate to the search of Bush admistration personnel files to dozens other scandals about which we know little. William Clinger, the ranking Republican on the House Government Operations Committee, has noted that his committee conducted 40 percent fewer oversight hearings in the first year of the Clinton administration than during the first year of the Bush administration.

Democrats have attempted to paint Republican efforts to investigate as partisan sniping in an effort to derail the administration's agenda. But they have yet to get a taste of anything like the nastiness in the name of oversight that Democrats inflicted on the Reagan and Bush administrations.

In a Republican 104th Congress, they surely will. What has been most interesting to observe is the emergence of the mild-mannered, moderate James Leach, the ranking member of the House Banking Committee, as Whitewater attack dog. Clinger, too, has no reputation for right-wing bomb-throwing, but he is fighting mad. Hell hath no fury like a moderate Republican in pursuit of his oversight responsibilities.

Beyond the obvious scandals, it would be useful to see oversight and other hearings aimed at substantive matters of executive branch action. Rather than John Dingell's unprecedented call for environmental crimes prosecutors at the Justice Department to appear before his committee to answer for the quality of their prosecutions, we might see hearings at which Attorney General Janet Reno and others are grilled on the political motives of environmental crimes prosecution.

One thing that I think will not happen, however, is full-scale retaliation for the Democratic abuses. I have asked Clinger about this directly. He has said he could not bring himself to place a Democratic minority in the same position in which he now finds himself.

Get Serious

Congressional Republicans are starting to take themselves more seriously. I have mentioned the elusive task of "nationalizing" congressional elections - convincing voters that a vote for a member of a particular party in their own district can have national significance. The past two Republican presidents have been criticized for their failure to sell a message that they needed more Republicans in Congress to deliver on their agenda. Maybe such failures are common simply because of the relationship of the presidency and the Congress. To be deemed successful, a president must be seen to be advancing an agenda, leading the nation, regardless of who runs Congress. Or at least that's how the presidents have seen it.

It may be up to Republicans in Congress and would-be Republicans in Congress themselves to "nationalize" congressional elections - to say, "Here is where we stand and here is what I will help do if you elect me."

Republicans, after all, believe that their ideas about the size of government and its role in Americans' lives, about taxation, about the national defense, and so on, are more in accordance with the views of the American people than their competitors' ideas. They can even cite poll data to "prove" it.

When it comes to wielding political power in this country, however, those polls don't matter much. What matters is what happens in congressional elections every other year. Convince yourselves of that, and then start convincing the people, and you may be getting somewhere.