Weary House Republicans Set Breakneck Legislative Pace

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bright lights glare down on the House of Representatives as lawmakers brawl their way toward passage of the first big budget-cutting bill to come up since Republicans seized control of Congress last fall. Smack in the middle of the din sits a senior Republican who, after spending 18 powerless years in the minority, has earned the right to savor this moment of triumph over a generation of Democratic spenders.

But forces more powerful than history have overtaken Rep. John T. Myers of Indiana. He is asleep.

Myers, who had worked until 10:30 the night before and been back in his office for a 7 a.m. meeting, is typical of the exhausted foot soldiers of the Republican revolution that has turned Capitol Hill on end.

After three months of forced marches through the GOP's ambitious legislative agenda, their battle flags are crowned with ribbons but their ranks have the ragged look of walking wounded.

Not since the heady first "Hundred Days" of Franklin D. Roosevelt's first term--when Congress rushed to approve prescriptions for ending the Depression--has Congress seen such a period of exhausting, helter-skelter legislative activity as has gripped the House.

Indeed, scholars say there are few precedents other than F.D.R.'s initial push in the 200-plus years of the Constitution. In the post-Civil War period, Congress worked at a fever pitch to engineer Reconstruction. And in the early days of World War II, Congress was in session year-round.

But those were cases of Congress reacting to national crises or social turmoil. What puts the present period in a class by itself is that it is occurring when the nation is, by any normal standard, fundamentally safe, prosperous and at peace.

"Congress doesn't act quickly--it's not designed to act quickly," said Donald Ritchie, associate historian of the Senate, "unless you have a sense of national emergency like war or depression."

For a period of barely 12 weeks, "the record of the House . . . is astounding," said David R. Mayhew, a professor of political science at Yale University.

Since convening after New Year's Day, lawmakers and their staffs--many accustomed to the leisurely pace of government in gridlock--have been roused from comfortable routines into long hours and a relentless pace by the House Republicans' 1994 campaign promise to put the entire "contract with America," their far-reaching conservative manifesto, to a vote within 100 days of taking power.

The result: Laws remaking major elements of American society, from welfare to criminal law to tax policy, are being written at a remarkable pace, but in near sweatshop conditions.

"People ask me how I like being in the majority," said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) "You know what I want more than anything else? A nap."

The working conditions may be taking a toll on the quality of the products coming off the legislative assembly line. "We're moving too fast," said Myers, a moderate Republican first elected in 1966. "We're not spending enough time examining what we're doing."

Such reservations are rare--or at least rarely expressed--among House Republicans, especially among the huge, eager class of freshmen who take the contract as gospel. They see keeping the 100-day commitment as crucial to their political survival, regardless of the outcome.

Indeed, many House Republicans are pressing ahead without regard for time-honored legislative niceties such as public hearings or extensive debate because they know their handiwork will not become law. They assume the Senate, where the flames of revolution burn less intensely, will slow the process and tend to the details.

But some analysts and lawmakers still fear that the headlong rush in the House risks saddling the public with ill-conceived laws whose consequences are far from certain. "We'll have to look back and see what it looks like two years from now," Myers said.

"Observing the legislative process in the House of Representatives is no longer like watching sausage being made," James A. Thurber, an expert on Congress at American University, said in a recent article in Roll Call, a Capitol Hill biweekly publication. "It is like watching Charlie Chaplin catch cream pies coming off a high-speed conveyor belt."

Before the Republicans took charge in January, the House tended to operate on a genteel, if unpredictable, schedule for most of the year. The "Tuesday-through-Thursday Club" gave lawmakers long weekends to see their families, consort with constituents and water their political roots back home. The first months were especially low-key. Lawmakers typically did little more than await the President's budget and clear their throats for big debates to come.

All that changed after the 1994 elections, when Republicans promised to bring rapid-fire change to Washington. Portraying the GOP-led Congress as a can-do crowd, Republicans promised to work round the clock, seven days a week if necessary, to meet their self-imposed deadline for voting on their 10-part contract.

"We have to do it in 100 days or no one would believe this Congress is different from any other Congress in the past," said freshman Rep. Linda Smith (R-Wash.).

The 100-day time frame evoked the atmosphere of F.D.R.'s first term, when the country was taut with anxiety about the collapse of the financial system. Called into special session by Roosevelt, Congress met from March through June, 1933, and passed 15 major laws to prop up the nation's banks, farms, railroads and other key sectors of the economy. The tone was set on Day 1, when the House and Senate briskly cleared legislation giving the President vast new powers over the banking system. The bill passed the House without a recorded vote after only 40 minutes of debate.

But in the end, the results of this madcap pace were mixed. It produced landmark laws that reshaped American society, but some had rough edges. The cornerstone of the New Deal--the National Recovery Act, a bold experiment in government control over industry--proved unpopular, unworkable and finally unconstitutional.

Still, the 100-day timeline has persisted in the political imagination as shorthand for faith that much can be accomplished quickly if the country is motivated. The benchmark is usually reserved for assessing the presidency, but House Republicans imported it to help manufacture a sense of urgency around their agenda.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) set the pace on opening day in January, when he turned what is usually a ceremonial occasion into a grueling, 14 1/2-hour workday, with the House passing a raft of procedural changes to make it easier for the GOP to pass its agenda.

Then came the deluge: A bill limiting federal mandates to states whisked through the House without a hearing. The proposed balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution soon followed. The line-item presidential veto was next. Then came three big bills in one week to curb federal regulation. Three more bills followed to reshape the legal system. The cream pies kept coming, and the conveyor belt kept speeding up.

In the first two months of this year, the House was in session almost 300 hours, compared to 85 hours over the same period of the last Congress. It had filled more than twice as many pages in the Congressional Record. It conducted 252 roll-call votes by St. Patrick's Day--compared to 73 in the last Congress. Late-night sessions are so taken for granted that one lawmaker sent around a letter offering self-defense tips for staff going home after dark.

Many House Republicans, thrilled to be in power for the first time in 40 years, are running on sheer adrenaline. The GOP agenda has become an all-consuming passion. Freshman Rep. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) was so wedded to Capitol Hill that it was March before he took his 7-year-old son to see the Jefferson Memorial. Rep. John Ensign (R-Nev.) betrayed his utter preoccupation with the "contract with America" when he was asked how old his son was. "He'll be 3 the day after the contract is over," Ensign told a colleague.

After an unrelieved string of late-night sessions, Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.) made a special plea to Republican leaders to recess the House early on Valentine's Day so lawmakers could rendezvous with their loved ones. "Roses are red, violets are blue, if we're not home by 7, we're in deep stew," Roemer said.

Rep. Bob Wise (Va.) has seen so little of his family that when his 7-year-old son was asked at school to draw a picture of his father, he produced a poignant sketch: a man with one hand holding a suitcase, the other hand opening a door, and a single word coming from his mouth: "Goodby."

Exhaustion has become the coin of the realm, and it is buying an epidemic of ailments. A pallid Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) dragged himself around the Capitol with a 102-degree fever. Smith of Washington was so run down that she checked in with the Capitol physician and went to the hospital for tests. The doctor's conclusion: "You might have something everyone else does. You're tired."

Some worry that under these conditions, the potential for mistakes, misjudgments and just plain ignorance--always a risk in such an inexperienced group, is compounded.

There already have been some notable examples. Six anti-crime bills zipped through the House in February, but there was one small problem: Their price tag added up to more than the new anti-crime law that the GOP was trying to pare back. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) says he is confident that can be remedied in the Senate.

The breakneck legislative pace may help Republicans keep their campaign promises, but it carries political risks of its own, especially for freshmen. The long hours in Washington have meant less time back in their home districts securing their political base and finding out more directly what voters think of the contract now.

"It has significantly cut into what I can do back home with constituents," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.). "When I'm home, I'm trying to save as much time for my family."

The end may be in sight. The House aims to finish work on the contract April 7 and then break for a three-week recess that will send lawmakers back to their families and constituents. That promise may be the only thing keeping haggard Republicans going. "I can do this for 100 days, but after that you're asking us to vote on things too quickly," Smith said. "There is no way I could keep this up."

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