Bills Flow as Democrats Tighten Grip on Congress

Richard E. Cohen covers Congress for the National Journal

Something significant and unexpected has quietly emerged from Capitol Hill in recent months: The Democratic-controlled Congress has produced an array of major legislation, much of which will have been enacted before the year ends.

The diverse agenda includes many bills that have long been highly controversial in Washington. Proposals dealing with civil rights and health care, for example, have been enacted after debates of at least 20 years. Also on the list are several items that run counter to President Reagan's political creed of less government. But he has either been unable to find enough votes to sustain his vetoes or has meekly stood aside while Congress seized the initiative.

No surprise that the lame-duck President has had modest influence among lawmakers. That was widely predicted after the 1986 election, when Republicans lost control of the Senate and the Iran-Contra affair began to unfold. What has been startling, however, has been the skill and success rate with which congressional Democrats have taken control of the program.

The Democrats' record has come amid several obstacles, real or assumed, that should have been a legislative brake. They include the widely reported impression that Congress increasingly finds itself so bogged down in special-interest influence that its members cannot make tough decisions; the political community's preoccupation with the presidential election, and the focus on alleged ethical misdeeds by House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas. Indeed, given the often shrill tone of debate, a surprisingly muted partisanship has surrounded the legislative arena.

Yet the cumulative results have been impressive. Although most of the steps have produced incremental changes, not radical overhaul, of federal programs, any reform or expansion of government services is a tough task politically, especially given the nation's complex political dynamics and the huge federal deficit. Here are some of the major actions:

-- Health care . The broadest expansion of the Medicare program since its creation in 1965--chiefly in covering the cost of catastrophic illnesses--may be matched by the most important changes in national standards for welfare recipients since the New Deal.

-- Civil rights. Congress appears certain to enact a sweeping open-housing bill, which sparked vocal opposition in 1968. That bill would complement another, passed this spring over Reagan's veto, to assure that recipients of federal aid fully comply with federal civil-rights laws.

-- Trade . Reagan temporarily got his way when the Senate narrowly sustained his veto of a comprehensive trade bill, but most observers on Capitol Hill expect a similar version to win enactment this year. Likewise, the proposal for notification to workers of a plant closing or major layoff, which Reagan has vigorously opposed, is now awaiting his signature or veto. And backers of organized labor hold out hope for boosting the minimum wage, now at $3.35 per hour ($4.25 in California), for the first time since 1977.

The pattern began last year with speedy congressional action to override Reagan vetoes of major bills to increase spending for highways and local clean-water programs. Also approved in 1987 were overhaul of federal farm-credit and education programs.

"We have had an enormously productive record," Wright said recently. "We have turned around the nation's priorities." During the Democratic convention, Wright called the record "a story of promises fulfilled." But he and other Democrats planned to emphasize during the fall campaign that the Democratic-controlled Congress needs presidential leadership and that it cannot lead the country by itself.

Even with the usual hyperbole, the recent litany of legislation has been striking, especially compared with the relatively slow pace following the initial onslaught of Reagan's tax and domestic-spending cuts. The early Reagan years were marked by the 1983 bipartisan rescue of Social Security; later came the tax reform bill in 1986 and the continuing fights on aid to the Nicaraguan Contras. Otherwise, it is difficult to recall comparable major achievements from either end of the ideological spectrum during that period.

Although the 1986 election opened the door for Democrats to flex their muscles, recent precedents were not encouraging for them. In 1959-60, the most recent time a two-term President was ending his tenure, Democrats used the legislative stage to prepare and advocate vigorous steps that would move the nation beyond the placid era of Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Many of those ideas would become the foundation for John F. Kennedy's "New Frontier," but Democrats in Congress, then led by Texans Sam Rayburn and Lyndon B. Johnson, were unprepared to move on their own.

A key difference this time has been Wright's vigorous style. Whatever may be said of his personal finances and influence-peddling--and Republicans can be expected to continue their attack while the House Ethics Committee pursues its investigation--Wright has prepared a far more detailed agenda and a game plan to achieve it than did his predecessor as Speaker, Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.).

Wright and his lieutenants have wrested control of the legislative levers in a manner giving them him extraordinary power, usually leaving Republicans little to do other than second-guess. Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who is relinquishing his party post this year, has not had the muscle or votes to move legislation as forcefully as Wright but the two of them have worked relatively smoothly as a team.

Some conservative Republicans contend that Democrats will eventually pay the price for their renewed activism and that voters will not be impressed by election-year goodies. But with many House and Senate Republicans joining to pass the bills and override Reagan vetoes, the partisan risk has lessened. "The fact that Reagan's opinion was not persuasive has been a comment on the strength of our proposals," said House Majority Leader Thomas S. Foley of Washington.

A recent national survey for the American Medical Assn.'s political action committee by Democratic pollster William R. Hamilton enhances the view that, for the Democrats, good policies may be good politics in 1988. According to the poll, 60% of the respondents said that the nation's leaders "should make major changes in how government operates and set new goals and directions for the country." Only 32% said that government should continue "basically on the same track."

The volatility of presidential campaigns makes it risky to predict whether such findings will shape the Bush-Dukakis outcome. The issue differences may prove more important to the outcome of many campaigns for Senate and House seats than in the presidential contest.

Still, presidential candidates should welcome Capitol Hill activism: At this rate, there may not be many issues left for a winner to confront in 1989.

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