The 101st Congress

October 30, 1990

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.

Most impressive was the last-minute enactment of child-care programs to assist some of the nation's 10 million latch-key youngsters and to improve pre-school benefits for children in welfare families. The emphasis on children was welcome -- and overdue.

Does the willingness of Congress to fund social welfare programs and cut Pentagon spending represent the first post-Cold War pivot? It is too early to tell. Hostilities in the Middle East would force huge new expenditures on military operations. A long economic downturn would reduce revenues for domestic programs.

Unfortunately for the 101st, its solid accomplishments were frequently overshadowed by scandals and the inability of its leaders and committee chairmen to control their rank and file. The result was a little-noticed relinquishing of budget power to the executive branch, which will be able to shift or cut spending if the White House determines budget ceilings have been exceeded. This could be the latter-day equivalent of the line-item veto long sought by presidents. While the country needs any fiscal discipline it can get, the legislative weakness this symbolizes is dismaying indeed. Unless Congress reforms many its procedures, including the way it protects incumbency, it will continue to lose public esteem.

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