NINETEEN-NINETY-FIVE was a wild and inconclusive year for the
United States Congress. Republican legislators, in control of
Capitol Hill for the first time in a generation, saw few of their
initiatives become law - and at year's end, their most important
work, a seven-year plan to balance the budget, remained stalled by
partisan war with the White House. But despite its statistical lack
of accomplishment, the 104th Congress seems a turning point in
American political debate. In Washington, the question is no longer
whether to end deficits, but how; not whether government should be
reduced, but by how much.
Since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, if not earlier, the
US has been changing haltingly from a society that views the
federal government as a solver of problems to one that sees
Washington as a weight on its back. This change has now affected
both major parties. Democrats may regain control of the House and
Senate in 1996. But even if they do, the days of LBJ's Great
Society - or even President Clinton's health-care plan - will not
"Wherever history is headed, it is no longer headed left,"
claims political expert Michael Barone in the current issue of The
New Democrat, a magazine for party moderates.
Still, House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and his fellow
revolutionary GOP representatives may have hoped for more when they
took office last January. In a first 100 days of strenuous
activity, House members passed nine of the 10 items on the
Republican Contract With America, with only a constitutional
amendment limiting the terms of members of Congress falling short.
Yet the much-publicized Contract has had little actual impact on
American life - so far. Mr. Clinton has signed into law only three
small Contract-inspired bills: a measure that makes Congress
subject to the same labor laws private employers face; a bill
intended to cut federal paperwork; and a bill meant to end the
practice of imposing federal mandates on states without providing
the money needed to carry them out.
Some Contract-derived items perished in the more-moderate
Senate. An amendment to the Constitution that would have required a
balanced budget passed the House, for example, but went down to
defeat in the Senate by one vote.
Others, such as a proposed line-item veto for the president,
have passed both legislative chambers but remain mired in that
mysterious neverland known as a House-Senate conference. Still
others, such as a reduction in capital-gains tax, have fallen prey
in one way or another to the president's veto pen.
The Republican-led Congress has hammered out some difficult
legislation, including a telecommunications bill now teetering on
the verge of final passage. …