Election-year Congress Plays It Safe
LEGI-SLATE News Service
Wednesday, April 7, 1998
The night before the House of Representatives left town for the April recess, Republican leaders distributed a "brag" list of legislation acted on this year that members could show voters back home to rebut Democratic charges that the GOP is running a "do-nothing" Congress.
But topping the short list was a major bill [H.R. 10] to overhaul financial services a measure that was pulled from the floor several hours later when vote counts came up short. It was GOP leaders' third legislative loss in as many days and the latest setback on a minimalist agenda intended to avoid major political mistakes during this congressional election year.
Through April 3, lawmakers enacted 12 bills that were signed into law a record that, depending on one's political viewpoint, could be viewed as shameful, shameless or good news for voters who are quite happy with Congress these days, according to public opinion polls.
"As Paul Newman said, 'Sometimes nothing is a real cool hand,'" said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College in California.
Pitney said Republicans already have a major accomplishment from 1997 that will carry them to the November election last summer's balanced budget agreement with Democrats and President Clinton.
"From their perspective, they already have their trophy on the wall. It's only one accomplishment, but from a rhetorical context, it's a heck of an accomplishment," Pitney added.
But irritated conservatives fault congressional leaders for stalling until after the elections on issues that are important to them.
"We think that members of Congress Democrats and Republicans alike are hired by their constituency to come to Washington to do a job," said David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which rates Congress on conservative issues.
And by "explicitly" adopting a below-the-radar election-year strategy, "what they are doing is telling the folks back home, 'You ought to continue to pay us but we're not going to work until next year,'" Keene added.
Democrats are also turning up the rhetorical heat with accusations of a "do-nothing Congress."
Lamenting the legislative inaction on the Senate side caused by both parties Senate Democratic Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., noted the House worked even fewer days than the Senate.
"It's amazing to me. [House members] can come in for a day or so and pick up the mail and they're gone again," Daschle said, with some exaggeration.
When Congress resumes business on April 21, there will be only 82 work days left on this year's calendar.
But even when they are in town, Republican leaders are limiting members' political exposure by slowly serving up their own "safe" issues and avoiding social issues that can cause controversy and highlight differences among Republicans, Capitol Hill watchers noted.
The American Conservative Union released on Tuesday its congressional ratings for 1997, which showed both the House and Senate voting less conservatively than in recent years.
"The incentive is to get out early and to go out and campaign on the balanced budget. It makes sense for these members to close shop and take credit," said Sarah Binder, who watches Congress at the Brookings Institution.
"Their own election incentive does not allow for them to stay here debating financial services or more controversial issues like campaign finance reform or education," she added.
At first glance, the 156 bills passed by Congress since January seems to show an equally, and in some ways more, productive Congress compared to 1995, when Republicans took control of the House and Senate.
As the newly in-charge House GOP leaders pressed ahead with their 10-point "contract with America" legislative package, Congress passed a total of 190 bills, with five becoming law through April 3, 1995, including a supplemental appropriations measure.
But this year, both chambers left town without completing an emergency appropriations bill to shore up funds for U.S. troops in Bosnia and to provide assistance to victims of disastrous winter storms.
Also left on the table were supplemental appropriations requests from the White House to send $18 billion to the International Monetary Fund, which was relied upon during the Asian financial crisis, and to pay delinquent dues owed to the United Nations.
This year, the Senate worked longer hours than the House, but Senate GOP leaders failed to keep their promise to pass by the April 15 tax deadline a measure to reform the Internal Revenue Service.
They also delayed, for the second time, final debate on a Republican education bill that would, among other things, give tuition tax credits to enhance school choice. The measure was stalled by filibusters until Democrats received approval from Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., to include in the post-recess debate some Democratic education proposals, such as the hiring of 100,000 new teachers nationwide.
By early April, the President signed into law 12 bills passed by Congress this year. Of those, five named public facilities after popular figures most notably, placing former President Ronald Reagan's name on Washington National Airport. A sixth law issued a certificate of documentation to a ship.
Making a broader comparison with the 104th Congress, which began in 1995, to the 105th Congress, beginning in 1997, Binder agreed that the current two-year term appears to be less productive.
"There was a whirlwind created with the "contract" and there was a pent up Republican demand. In the 104th, they passed minimum wage, welfare reform and environmental issues," Binder said.
"Other than the  balanced budget bill, it's hard to see what Congress has been doing," Binder said.
Conservatives want to see not only more action from Congress this year but action on the "right" issues: challenges to affirmative action, bilingual education, and deregulation of the campaign finance system. But the ACU's Keene acknowledges their causes are stymied by public opinion polls giving Congress 55 percent to 60 percent job approval ratings, the highest in decades.
"The Republican leadership's view is, 'Anything we do anything can only have one impact on that rating, and that's to lower it,'" Keene said.
Also, public satisfaction with Congress means incumbents will probably be returned to office, Keene added, leaving Republicans with little incentive to rock the boat.
In 1994, the last non-presidential election year and the last year with Democrats controlling Congress, lawmakers were a little more daring, passing 140 bills in the opening weeks of the session, with 18 becoming law by April 3.
That is the year that House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey, R-Texas, uses as the benchmark in his "brag" memo, the year against which he measures declines in unemployment and violent crime, an increase in stock market activity, and this year's balanced budget.
Of course, Democrats, with one of their own in the White House, claim credit for those things, too.
Armey also acknowledges this year's slow legislative start. "While I realize many are frustrated at the pace of change (particularly some of our friends on the outside), we are making a difference in the day-to-day lives of the American people," he stated.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., however, took a less defensive view.
Before taking off on a national tour to promote his new book, Gingrich noted the House's approval in the closing hours of the largest highway and mass-transit bill and the Senate's passage of a balanced budget resolution.
"Now those are big things, not little things," Gingrich told his fellow Republicans.
But many days this year, Congress has only concerned itself with "little things." The House legislative calendar for one day in mid-March, for example, included a whirlwind tour of the world with non-binding resolutions commending democracy in Botswana and condemning repression in Kosovo and in China. The same day, the House approved a measure allowing use of the Capitol grounds for a charity footrace.
Though Republicans have tried to avoid political embarrassment, just days before the recess, House leaders botched three bills: a forest protection measure that failed after being opposed by environment-friendly lawmakers; a campaign finance reform bill that was intended to fail but its clumsy handling enraged GOP moderates; and the financial services bill that was lobbied to death by the banking community.
It was a bit of legislative strangulation that was somewhat unusual for House GOP leaders who, after gaining control of Congress three years ago, had the troops marching in lock-step precision. But there are fewer Republicans in the House now, and just 10 GOP dissidents, whether they are conservatives or moderates, can gain political leverage by breaking ranks with party leaders.
Still, Armey and other GOP leaders say significant work is yet to come this year as many bills move through committees. In his memo, he noted that members will soon take up the fiscal 1999 budget and 13 appropriations bills.
"I'm confident that within a few short weeks, I'll be hearing complaints about the workload being too heavy. That's just the nature of this institution," Armey said.
© Copyright 1998 LEGI-SLATE News Service