THE 101ST Congress reversed the usual relationship between packaging and substance in politics. It managed to look bad evenwhile doing good. The first Congress of the Bush administration was one in which both parties and the president nervously stepped beyond the frozen political positions of the Reagan era and began to clean up some of its debris. In the end the president and Congress both achieved an impressive amount, but only barely and with sweaty palms.
The Congress had a bad beginning. It got caught with its hand in the cookie jar of a 50 percent pay raise, which it was forced to renounce. The president and Senate meanwhile spent weeks debating the drinking habits of John Tower, ultimately rejected as secretary of defense, while the House was transfixed as its ethics committee investigated the financial affairs of Speaker Jim Wright. Not until summer did Mr. Wright and, separately, House Democratic whip Tony Coelho resign and the current leaders take over. In Year One the president and leadership of both parties also bravely decided to deal with the budget deficit by kicking it over until Year Two, on the theory that later would be better.
This is what has now been accomplished:
1. Despite the approach of both an election and a recession and with the government still divided, a solid deficit reduction plan has been enacted. Both parties had to give ground to achieve it; it involves both tax increases and spending restraints. The plan may not turn out to reduce the deficit enough, but it is probably all a weak economy can withstand right now and the first major step in the right fiscal direction in 10 years.
2. A prudent first step was also taken toward adjusting defense policy to a changed set of circumstances abroad. The administration began the year with a stand-pat defense budget, while some Democrats proposed turning the Defense Department into a kind of sub-Treasury for the rest of government. The steadier reductions in real terms and shifts in the mix of forces that were adopted as a compromise are the right course in terms of military as well as fiscal policy.
3. The first Congress of a conservative administration did surprisingly well by the poor. These were needed steps; the poor lost ground in the uneven economic expansion of the 1980s. A modest first increase in the minimum wage in nine years was passed last year. Now (in part as an offset to the gasoline and other regressive tax increases in the deficit reduction plan) the earned-income tax credit or negative income tax that supplements the wages of the working poor with children has also been expanded. The Medicaid program, which still serves fewer than half the poor, has been restructured so that over time all poor children will be covered, a significant step toward reducing the seventh of the population without health insurance. As a further such step a new tax credit has been enacted to help the working poor with children pay private health insurance premiums. The government once again has, in the form of the new housing bill, an agreed-upon policy for expanding the subsidized housing supply. A system of grants through the states to help the working poor buy child care while expanding the supply and regulating the quality has also been adopted. In 1971 Richard Nixon vetoed a child care bill; this president, having earlier resisted, will sign it.
4. Clean air represented another impasse of the Reagan years; no bill could be passed. Now major amendments have been adopted strengthening the Clean Air Act mainly along lines proposed by the president last year.
5. Full civil rights protection was extended to the disabled earlier this year, and Congress in the rush of legislation as it went home to campaign also liberalized immigration law to let more and a broader range of people in. Under pressure of the budget Congress also did some useful restructuring of farm supports; last year for the same reason it took control of physicians' fees under Medicare, and in the process is likely to have changed for the better the way doctors are paid in the society generally.
There is plenty that Congress did not do. Legislation to clean up the pig pen of congressional campaign finance was once again allowed to founder; the subject will return next year. The Democrats are unlikely to lose their revived interest in tax fairness (or the Republicans theirs in cutting the capital gains tax). The defense debate will continue -- how to restructure U.S. forces -- the administration may have something to say (the president is scheduled to receive reports) on restructuring the health care system. The vetoed civil rights bill also remains on the agenda.
For now the members are home explaining to the voters why their performance the last few months wasn't as bad as it seemed. It was late in coming, and a lot of it was only repair work, but the 101st Congress nonetheless did some pretty good things.