Why This Congress Must Be Considered the Worst in a Half-Century


The 104th Congress may be the worst in 50 years.

It has another 10 months before it nails down top (bottom?) honors. And it will, of course, face tough competition from four other eminently second-rate Congresses--the 80th, 89th, 101st and 103rd. Even so, it’s time for the national debate to start, because what Americans decide to do about Congress will color what kind of president they’ll want to pick--or settle for--in November.

Believers in the Washington system--once described as dropping coins into the elephants’ and donkeys’ mouths and getting laws and regulations out the other end--were cheered in early 1995 by the apparent renewal of tired political parties and government mechanisms represented by ultrapowerful new House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and his bold agenda of national change.

A year later, two-thirds of the “contract with America” is sitting in the Senate’s dumpster or crumbled in the president’s veto basket; Congress’ ratings are back to autumn 1994 contempt levels, and Gingrich has set records for first-year credibility loss by a new speaker. The notion of a “reform” GOP Congress is now right up there with Tinkerbell and the Tooth Fairy; and Washington lobbyists are wondering how they will ever collect on the regulatory breaks and tax loopholes they thought they’d bought at the Grand Old Auction Party last winter.


Recent national surveys have shown voters saying President Bill Clinton should be reelected to block the unpopular Congress. But other new polls show the electorate is starting to tilt Democratic for the House, as well. So November is emerging as a dilemma-cum-challenge: Would dumping the House GOP and eliminating Gingrich as speaker make it safe to also oust Clinton as president--especially if his family and staff start setting records for time spent before grand juries? Clinton’s great success with his State of the Union speech isn’t likely to repeat itself if he has to make a State of Family Integrity follow-up.

But Clinton’s foibles have already been debated in two elections--1992 and 1994. It is the failures of the GOP Congress that might well be the focus of 1996.

Take the “contract with America.” This started out as a smart campaign ploy, but GOP strategists let its dozen or so promises--from budget balance to a line-item veto--become the be-all and end-all of Republican congressional achievement. A few good ideas--congressional accountability and prohibition of unfunded federal mandates being imposed on the states, for example--made it across Clinton’s desk and into the statute books; but other popular themes (term limits) bogged down, and some ideas, such as tort reform and environmental overhaul, lost favor as the involvement of lobbyists became all too evident.

The collapse of public support was stunning. Polls by the Times-Mirror Center found that, in winter 1994-95, voters approved congressional GOP policies by 52%-28%; but, by January 1996, they disapproved, 54%-36%. The NBC News poll found virtually the same shift. Respondents had agreed with the GOP policies, 49%-22%, in January 1995; by January 1996, disagreement prevailed, 48%-34%. This is the sharpest slump in policy-approval ever measured for a new Congress.

The crown jewel of the contract--huge tax cuts tilted toward business and the wealthy combined with a seven-year zero budget-deficit blueprint--was especially flawed and, worse still, a practical contradiction. The tax cuts proved a zero-deficit program over seven years wasn’t even a good idea. In 1994, all the European Union nations, except Luxembourg, had larger deficits than the United States. Ours was 2% of gross domestic product, theirs ranged from 2.1% of GDP in Ireland and 2.6% in Germany to a whopping 11.4% in Greece. These countries, too, face high health and pension costs, as well as job weakness; and the requirement that EU members get deficits down to 3% is feared in much of Western Europe as a recession prescription. The GOP’s zero-deficit prescription for America would have been even more Hooveresque.

Meanwhile, the 104th Congress has emerged as a beacon light of hypocrisy when it comes to institutional reform and money in politics. The promise of term limits was quickly scuttled, and new GOP leaders, especially in the House, have used the same kind of closed-door legislative tactics they attacked under the Democrats. The vaunted lobbying “reforms” passed this winter turn out to have something else--a downshift from criminal penalties to civil penalties with the usual game of widening as many escape hatches as are closed. Discussing the loopholes in the new gift ban, the president of the American League of Lobbyists remarked, “I would prefer to call them pathways or, in some cases, interstates.”


As for campaign finance, serious reform has already been mocked and foreclosed. Congress’ new GOP leaders have collected bigger campaign contributions, from more special interests, than any previous set of first-termers.

The final mega-problem is the “extreming” of Congress since the 1994 election. Not only has the ideology been radical, but, on the House side, Gingrich and the 74 House GOP freshmen are becoming twin symbols of political excess. Recent polls on Gingrich give him only a 26%-34% approval rating, while 55%-58% disapprove. No new speaker has ever dropped so far so fast.

The right-leaning freshmen are in just as much trouble. One January poll found 70% of Americans disapproved of the freshmen’s willingness to shut down government in the budget debate, with 45% calling the freshman “ideological extremists who are holding the federal government hostage.”

The “extreming” of Congress has even spread to the hitherto centrist Senate. The rightward lurch of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) signaled this shift, and the retirement announcements of five GOP moderates make a sharper swing to the right inevitable after they’re gone. The new Senate GOP of 1997 will be far more like the current House GOP--not exactly an endorsement for keeping the Republicans in control.

Other Congresses that compete for the “worst in 50 years” title are the 80th (1947-48), the 89th (1965-66), the 101st (1989-90) and the 103rd (1993-94). The 103rd was the Democratic Congress that voters voted out in 1994, angry at its mix of petty scandals and ineffectiveness. Its biggest failure was that the Democrats were stale and deserved the boot after 40 years of unbroken control in the House.

The 101st Congress featured the forced resignations of Democratic Speaker Jim Wright and Majority Whip Tony Coelho. The 89th was the lopsidedly Democratic Congress that ran amok with the liberal legislation and overambition of the 1960s. The 80th was the last GOP Congress to face a Democratic president. It also went too far on economic, education and social welfare issues.


However, because the 104th has ideological radicalism, yet another speaker facing an ethics investigation and a record collapse of public esteem, it could turn out to be the wustest that got there the fastest--to paraphrase the famous Confederate cavalry leader.

Is there a remedy? Not necessarily. Though defeating enough Republicans in the House to depose Gingrich as speaker could be a start. Giving the Democrats a narrow majority back won’t empower them to do much more than squelch GOP excess. But in the long haul, it will probably be necessary to find some way of promoting a mix of third parties, campaign reform aimed at helping independent congressional candidates (just proposed by retiring Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and other changes designed to break the nexus between money and politics.

After all, if Americans do start deciding that the 104th Congress is the worst in memory--or even first runner-up--then it could be time for voters to demand a far different set of arrangements and reforms. In Congress, as well as in presidential elections, the two-party system, with its false promises and special-interest masters, has arguably become part of the problem, not part of the solution.