How Different Will the Congress Really Be?

January 03, 1993|By RICHARD E. COHEN

When Congress convenes Tuesday, some things will have changed: 121 new faces have won election to the House and Senate. The end of "divided government" is in sight. The notorious House bank has closed. And lawmakers will be counting on bold leadership from Bill Clinton, who moves into the White House two weeks later.

But some features that fueled the recent congressional disrepute will remain the same: The House and Senate leaders and most committee chairmen who presided over the stubborn gridlock of the past four years remain at the helm. A prominent senator faces investigation for sexual harassment. And, in time-honored tradition, most members will struggle to fill their local pork barrel.

As a skeptical public waits for government to tackle persistent economic and social problems and to get the nation moving again, it is far from clear how sweeping will be the "change" that politicians promised during the 1992 campaign. Like many features of modern American politics, the overhaul may be more style than substance.

Judging by the limited evidence in the two months since the election, there has been little shift from business-as-usual on Capitol Hill. The herd of freshmen, who had promised to storm the barricades, instead became far more restrained and polite when they made their initial appearances to organize the new Congress.

As they bid for choice committee assignments, they were mindful of the setback suffered by Luis Gutierrez, a freshman House Democrat from Chicago. His campaign for a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee was short-circuited when he confronted party leaders about the need to reform the House.

A similar circumspection has seized the four new women in the Senate, who in their campaigns often recounted their anger over the Senate's treatment of Anita Hill when she testified against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. None was eager to step forward to join the Senate Ethics Committee, which will be weighing the sexual-harassment charges against Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore.

To show their responsiveness to recent internal problems, House Democrats have sought credit for eliminating a handful of subcommittees and for creating the new position of House administrator to provide professional management of the institution. Neither reform, however, is likely to fascinate the voters, nor will these changes have much dramatic impact on legislative output.

Even with Mr. Clinton's support, the outlook is uncertain for changes in the federal election campaign law, including steps to reduce the power of special-interest groups, and more deep-seated changes in how Congress operates. Now that they can no longer depend on a presidential veto, many Democrats will be more reluc- tant to favor legislation that rescinds incumbents' perquisites.

As for new domestic policies, most Democrats have been waiting for Mr. Clinton and hoping that his political magic will cast a spell that will resolve their past problems. They understand that they face a partisan imperative to produce. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md., described in a pre-election interview his "sense of excitement" over the challenges facing the Democrats. "We have been through 12 years of sheer torture. . . . Now, I think that we can show the country that we can govern."

After blaming Republican presidents for the failures of the past dozen years, they no longer will have such a convenient scapegoat. Many of them candidly acknowledge that they will be on the front line in the 1994 election, when the voters have their first major opportunity since 1980 to hold one party accountable for Washington's performance.

"The American public will look to us to produce," said Rep. Robert T. Matsui, D-Calif., who warned of the "peril" if Democrats fail.

Their task will not be an easy one. Take health care, for example, an issue on which House and Senate Democratic leaders separately held countless private meetings during the past year to craft a party position. Having failed to break the deadlock, they are now counting on Mr. Clinton and his aides to rescue them.

"The difference will be that we have someone with clout to referee our conflicts," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., who chairs the House Democratic Caucus. "Most members want these issues solved and they know that it will take leadership."

But some Democrats lately have tempered their enthusiasm and have scaled back expectations while they caution that it will take least two years to approve health-care reform.

To prove their mettle, Democrats plan to move quickly this year ** to pass some form of an economic package. But will they use this bill to cut middle-class taxes or to raise taxes on the wealthy? It could be either, neither or both. And will they revise the budget to emphasize new domestic spending to stimulate )) the private sector or will they begin a long-term effort to tackle the deficit? Again, make your bet.

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