Congress' new guard may come from old school

September 20, 1992|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- This is the year American voters ar throwing the rascals off Capitol Hill. But will they merely be replacing them with new rascals?

The "change election" of 1992 will put more new faces in Congress than any other election in a generation. Experts say that when the new Congress is sworn in next January, at least one-fourth of its 535 members will be freshmen.

But they'll look like insiders, and the changes they're likely to bring about may fall short of the revolution in government many ** voters seem to be demanding.

Expect somewhat less partisan bickering, at least cosmetic changes in the way Congress conducts its own business and more substantive debate -- although not necessarily sweeping action -- on such issues as health care, education and jobs.

The House of Representatives is likely to be less conservative -- and somewhat less Democratic. The Senate may become more liberal -- and more Democratic. But don't look for any change in Democratic control of both houses or in the top leaders of either body -- House Speaker Thomas S. Foley and Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell.

Those are some of the conclusions that emerge from interviews with candidates, members of Congress, party officials and independent analysts, as well as others, such as the heads of Washington-based political action committees, who have met over the past 18 months with hundreds of challengers.

This year, more incumbents have retired or been defeated in primaries than at any time since World War II, leaving gaping holes in the Hill's power centers. The forecast is for two years of turbulence in Congress.

There already are 92 open seats -- those in which no incumbent is on the ballot -- and the primary season has two weeks left.

Some estimates of the number of new members next year go as high as 200, although most estimates are for about 120 to 140 new House members and 12 to 17 new senators. Republicans are expected to gain 10 to 20 House seats, while Democrats could pick up an additional two or three in the Senate.

Unlike the last big group of freshmen -- the heavily Democratic Watergate babies of 1974, who seemed to come out of nowhere -- the Class of 1992 will be more evenly split between the parties and composed mainly of seasoned political veterans. In striking contrast to their outsider rhetoric, most have experience as elected or party officials.

Nor did they decide yesterday to come to Washington. Some ran unsuccessfully before -- making their names more familiar to voters in the process -- while others waited years for the redistricting that took place before this election.

"They are people who've been dying to run for a long time," says Charles Cook, a congressional newsletter editor who has met personally with about 100 of the candidates challenging incumbents or running for open seats this fall. "A lot of them are pretty much establishment types. They're not wackos."

Those who have dealt firsthand with this year's candidates wonder just how different the next Congress will be from the current one, whose scandal-plagued tenure has inspired new heights of voter cynicism about the "mess in Washington."

Much could depend on whether Congress and the White House are in the hands of the same political party. Even Vice President Dan Quayle, in a remark that drew considerable criticism from fellow Republicans, has said the country would be better off if voters picked a president and a Congress of the same party, even if that meant voting Democratic.

But others blame the political power of special interests for the gridlock that has brought the government to a virtual standstill. And for all the campaign talk about changing the system, the current crop of candidates does not seem likely to bring a revolution to Washington.

"These people are all feeding out of the trough. There's no correlation between their campaign rhetoric and their behavior. They're taking money from PACs and appealing to special interests," says the director of one of the nation's largest political action committees, who has met with scores of candidates and who spoke on condition he remain anonymous.

What is different about the Class of '92, this man adds, is how much better prepared they are than previous challengers.

"They're coming in here more neatly packaged," he says, crediting this to the increasing sophistication of the army of campaign consultants who advise the candidates.

No group of House and Senate challengers is selling change harder than the record number of women, more than 80 at last count, who will be on the November ballot.

"In the minds of voters, they represent change merely by the fact of their gender," says Les Francis, director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

But, like their male counterparts, few women who make it to Washington next year are likely to be classic outsiders.

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