It was a Congress that excelled in superlatives, passing the most sweeping clean air bill in history, the most extensive child care program of this generation, the most enlightened immigration bill of the postwar era, an outstanding civil rights bill for the handicapped and the biggest savings and loan bailout on record. Yet by the time the 101st Congress adjourned, it had lowered public estimation of the legislative branch to troubling levels.
The immediate reason was its institutional inability to come to grips with the nation's debt problems despite passage, again in the superlative mode, of what is touted as the largest deficit-reduction bill ever enacted. Coming at the end of the longest election-year session in 45 years, the bitterly fought budget measure left the United States facing an even bigger deficit in the fiscal year that started Oct. 1 and the prospect of a $5 trillion federal debt by the mid-'90s.
If the country is, in fact, losing ground in its struggle for fiscal sanity, the White House is at least as much to blame as Capitol Hill. For that reason, Democrats could be forgiven their feelings of satisfaction as President Bush presented himself to the voters as the maladroit champion of the moneyed classes. With Republican House members deserting their own president, Democrats were able to shift tax and spending policies modestly to the benefit of the unmoneyed classes -- and thereby score a bit of a political coup.