Congress's State of Disunion

By Corn, David | The Nation, January 26, 1998 | Go to article overview

Congress's State of Disunion


Corn, David, The Nation


Ask Grover Norquist what Republicans have planned for the coming year and the bearded, round-faced conservative activist and front man for the stalled Republican revolution is off to the races, outlining a boatload of initiatives that will be floated in Congress to screw Democrats and set up a G.O.P. triumph in November--all part of a Republican effort to prepare for snatching back the White House in 2000 and gaining total control of Pennsylvania Avenue for the first time in forty-six years. It takes about forty-five minutes for Norquist, an intimate of Speaker Newt Gingrich and the head of Americans for Tax Reform, to lay out the specifics and catch his breath.

Ask an aide to the Democratic leadership in Congress what the Democrats have in store, and the response is, "We're working on it."

How the tacticians of the national political duopoly begin this election year may influence the final count in November. But with Congress returning to Washington and Bill Clinton preparing his sixth State of the Union Message, a major assumption reigns for the political class: Unless the economy tanks, this should be a fine year for incumbents. The economy is roaring--or at least is widely portrayed as such--and pollsters report that voters are reasonably satisfied with the status quo. Although when it comes to politicians, "satisfied" is a relative term: "The American contempt for elected officials is as high as ever," observes Guy Molyneux, vice president of Peter D. Hart Research Associates. "The public thinks they're all good for nothing. Thus they see no reason to throw the bums out. There's not much of an anti-incumbent mood, and that's obviously bad for Democrats." Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, predicts that the next election will be not so rousing: "In 1994, the electorate was angry at a do-nothing Congress and felt the economy was not going well. Now there is a high level of contentment, not a lot of resentment. That favors the Republicans. That takes the theme out of all this."

But in election years, theme happens--even if, as Jeff Eisenach, president of the Progress and Freedom Foundation and a former Gingrich adviser, gripes, "the two parties are devoid of big ideas or the ability to craft broad thematic messages." Democrats need a net gain of eleven seats to retake the House. That's unlikely to transpire; the party of a second-term President usually undergoes a whipping in midterm elections. But after the missteps of recent years, the Gingrich-led G.O.P. is not well positioned (except in terms of campaign funds) to exploit fully this historical trend. In the Senate, where the Republicans reign 55 to 45, neither party is poised to win enough seats to change the balance--either for the Republicans to obtain a filibuster-proof majority or for the Democrats to retake the majority.

If this makes for a year of shallow expectations, it doesn't rule out election-year fireworks designed to convince voters that the parties are locked in fundamental battle. With last year's agreement between Clinton and Congressional Republicans establishing a basic budget framework, each side is less encumbered. Clintonites are claiming that their man is now free to be more confrontational. And Nine-Lives Newt, who has survived scandal and attempted coup, has more room for mischief--especially since "Gingrich fear," as Republicans call it, is down.

Indeed, on Capitol Hill, the House Republicans seem to have their minds concentrated most. Their Democratic opposition is institutionally on the defensive, since the rules there offer them minimal say over the legislative agenda. Minority leader Dick Gephardt can toss out numerous speeches outlining his populist brainstorms, but he cannot force the Republicans to vote on any of his mindspurts. In the Senate, Republicans, under the less-than-effective leadership of Trent Lott, have kept their planning quiet, and Democrats, who can take advantage of the looser Senate rules, are considering what stink bombs, if any, to throw. …

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