Getting Beyond Gridlock: The New President and the New Congress

November 08, 1992|By STEVEN V. ROBERTS

With 110 new House members, and at least 11 new senators, the Congress that convenes in January will be a very different body than the one that left in October.

Established Democratic leaders, and the new Democratic president, will be faced with urgent and uncomfortable demands that Congress clean up its own house by ending the gridlock that has paralyzed all attempts to deal with the nation's persistent economic problems.

But these newcomers could turn out to be bridge-builders, rather than bomb-throwers. Many have gained experience serving in lower elective office and indicate a strong desire to end the bitter partisan wrangling that has marked the Bush years.

Practically every new lawmaker is coming to town with the same priority -- fix the economy -- but they differ on emphasis. Democrats stress enacting a jobs program while Republicans focus on deficit reduction, and reconciling these two aims will be a major task for the leaders.

As there is little money available to make a real impact on the debt, President-elect Bill Clinton and his Capitol Hill lieutenants will have to rely on symbolism. So expect pressures to rise behind two constitutional changes: one requiring a balanced budget every year, the other giving the president a line-item veto.

Moreover, many challengers ran on a platform of term limits for congressmen, but that idea might look less appealing once these outsiders get to Washington and become incumbents.

The new lawmakers will also be demanding changes in the way Congress does business: fewer perks, more streamlined scheduling, less reliance on fat-cat contributions to finance campaigns. Democratic leaders have already moved to end some of the worst abuses, such as closing the scandal-tainted House bank, charging fees for medical care, appointing a non-partisan administrator to handle financial affairs.

The new Congress will be far more representative of the $H American people -- more women, more blacks, more Hispanics. Mr. Clinton will try to make some early and visible gestures to these groups, such as signing a parental-leave bill, lifting the gag rule barring abortion counseling at family planning clinics and appointing women and minorities to vacant judgeships.

But the economy has to remain the focus of the new administration. In fact, the Clinton camp intends to follow the example set by Ronald Reagan, of all people: Stick to a few clear, compelling priorities, win some big victories quickly and not fritter away capital, or momentum, on fringe issues.

That will not be easy. Dozens of special interest groups are already pushing pet proposals in Congress that have languished for 12 years -- from publicly subsidized abortions and enhanced affirmative action programs to a striker replacement ban.

Mr. Clinton's success in dealing with Congress will depend heavily on qualities he displayed during the campaign: discipline and determination. As political scientist Thomas Mann notes: "Clinton ran as a new Democrat. The question is, will he govern as a new Democrat?"

That means, adds Mr. Mann, a willingness to "make enemies in his own party on Capitol Hill," such as the National Education Association and its supporters, while reaching out to moderate Republicans in a bipartisan coalition. In fact, I suspect Clinton will be looking for the legislative equivalent of Sister Souljah, a chance to show he can stand up to traditional Democratic interest groups.

If Bill Clinton has much to learn from Ronald Reagan's successes, he can also learn from Jimmy Carter's failures. Mr. Carter came to town with a chip on his shoulder the size of a sequoia, and surrounded himself with inbred Georgians who shared his distaste for the compromise and conciliation that makes life possible in the capital.

Mr. Clinton is much better connected to Washington and has more understanding of the legislative process, and, if he reaches out to Congress, I think he will find that many of the new lawmakers would much rather shake his hand than toss him a grenade. After all, the 110 new congresspersons must face the voters again in 1994, two years before Mr. Clinton's term is up.

Steven Roberts, who has covered Congress, is a senior writer at U.S. News and World Report. He wrote this analysis for Newsday.

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