Between crises that left it teetering on the edge of collapse, the 101st Congress enacted far-reaching legislation that will help clean up the nation's air, expand opportunities for the disabled, increase immigration, subsidize child care and overhaul farm and housing programs.
But it responded to the end of the Cold War with cautious half-measures, lost its "peace dividend" to the insatiable demands of deficit reduction and left town without a firm assertion of its powers over war-making in the Persian Gulf.
On the domestic side, it failed to revamp its widely discredited system of campaign financing and to ban acceptance of honoraria by senators, bowed to political pressure in scuttling a year-old program for "catastrophic" illness insurance and deadlocked over crime-fighting proposals ranging from reimposing the federal death penalty to curbing assault weapons.
Its Democratic majority found some of the voice it lost during the administration of President Ronald Reagan with a modest revival of social welfare legislation, including a minimum wage increase, tax credits for the poor and an expansion of Medicaid coverage for children from low-income families.
But Congress's relationship with President Bush was ambivalent and awkward, cooperative one minute, confrontational the next. Through an unbroken series of 15 sustained vetoes, the most recent of which resulted in killing a major civil rights bill, Bush was able to define the outer limits of congressional action, although his legislative program was so thin that Democrats set the agenda almost by default.
Even the accomplishments, hailed by House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) as "extraordinary" and by Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) as "significant," were sullied by ethics scandals, partisan stalemate and extraordinary disarray over the budget and other issues.
Even the most adamant defenders of Congress concede that change in its operations is necessary. While skepticism about governmental power is healthy, Mitchell said in an end-of-the-session review with reporters, "I don't minimize the criticism. Much of it is well-taken. We've got a lot to do to be more effective and efficient and improve our standing with the American people."
Despite the tumultous, often embarrassing nature of the session, Norman J. Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, ranked the two-year record of the 101st Congress in the "upper middle" on the legislative measuring scale -- better than most but not as good as the 100th Congress, whose sweeping list of accomplishments, ranging from arms control to welfare reform, also included the ill-fated catastrophic health insurance program.
Ethics was the albatross around Congress' shoulders from start to finish, exacerbating tensions, diverting an enormous amount of attention from other matters and contributing to mounting public disillusionment with Congress.
First the Senate refused to confirm former senator John G. Tower (R-Tex.) as secretary of defense amid a blizzard of charges about drinking, women and potential conflicts of interest. Then House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) and Majority Whip Tony Coelho (D-Calif.) quit in the face of ethics probes into their financial conduct. Sex scandals came and went in the House: a total of five in two years.
In the Senate, Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.) was officially "denounced" for financial improprieties. Meanwhile, at least two weeks of public hearings will begin Nov. 15 on the "Keating Five" senators who are accused of intervening improperly on behalf of failed savings and loan entrepreneur Charles H. Keating Jr.: Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), John Glenn (D-Ohio), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.). Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) is also under investigation in connection with allegations he improperly tried to help family members and political supporters in dealings with federal agencies.
The savings and loan scandal also hung like a dark cloud over Congress, reminding lawmakers of their over-zealous deregulation and under-zealous oversight during the 1980s and soaking up billions of dollars in bailout and cleanup costs. Responding to the political furor over the debacle, Congress approved stronger measures to investigate, prosecute and punish thrift-industry fraud.
The session was also a baptism of fire for the two new Democratic leaders, Foley and Mitchell, who, despite some painful defeats for Foley and rocky moments for both, managed to produce political victories for the Democrats on the budget, child care and other major issues. For Mitchell, who championed overhaul of the Clean Air Act since he arrived in the Senate nine years ago, there were also personal triumphs.
The new clean air bill -- in many ways as important and difficult to achieve as the budget agreement -- is among the most far-reaching environmental bills ever passed by Congress and is aimed at cleaning the skies of acid rain, airborne toxics and urban smog by the end of the century.
Legislation to extend civil rights to the disabled, including protections against job discrimination, was approved, although another bill to reverse six recent Supreme Court decisions that made it more difficult for workers to sue for race or sex discrimination on the job fell victim to a presidential veto.
The child care bill, passed after more than two decades of effort, provides tax credits and direct grants for care of children of working parents, with most of the money going to low-income families. The legislation also lays the groundwork for rules to encourage and guide development of child care services. But so-called parental leave legislation to require employers to give workers unpaid leave when children are born or family members fall ill was vetoed.
The new farm bill will reduce farm spending by 25 percent from projected levels over the next five years, largely by reducing subsidized acreage. It reflected a major departure from the ever-growing system of subsidies and price supports that have dominated government policy for a half-century.
The first major new housing bill in a decade expands existing housing programs and creates some new ones, including incentives for tenant acquisition of housing units.
Under the immigration bill, the number of people allowed to come to the United States to live would be increased by 40 percent, with a nearly three-fold increase in those with occupational skills.
The pay system for federal workers was revamped to link pay levels to local labor markets, boosting white-collar pay by as much as 5 percent a year between 1992 and 1994.
A watered-down version of proposals to encourage a civilian service corps was approved, focusing mainly on grants to states to encourage community service and volunteer activities.
In one of two controversies that raised questions over freedom of expression, restrictions against funding of "obscene" art financed by the National Endowment for the Arts were dropped and the NEA was empowered to recoup funds from recipients whose work is found obscene by a court. A proposed constitutional amendment to outlaw defacing of the American flag was rejected.
Efforts to modify antiabortion restrictions failed, and New Hampshire jurist David H. Souter was confirmed as an associate justice of the Supreme Court despite controversy over his refusal to say how he would vote in abortion cases.
In response to both the easing of East-West tensions and to demands for deficit reduction, Congress took the first step toward reducing the nearly $300 billion military budget by more than 20 percent over the next five years. But all major weapons programs, popular for the jobs they create at home, were continued and some were expanded.
Covert aid to rebels in Afghanistan, Cambodia and Angola was continued but cut or restricted, and military aid to El Salvador was cut in half unless leftist rebels refuse to negotiate a peace settlement.
Generally supporting Bush's Persian Gulf policy but reluctant to give the president a blank check to wage war against Iraq, Congress stopped short of any definitive action to assert its constitutional war-making powers. Instead, Foley and Mitchell called on Bush to consult with key members of Congress before acting and left behind what amounted to a wake-up call in the congressional adjournment resolution: Congress can be called back to town by its leaders if Bush decides to make war in its absence.