Clinton's Chances for ending Gridlock

January 17, 1993|By THEO LIPPMAN Jr.

This week a rare alignment of the national legislative and executive planets will occur in Washington: A Democratic Congress will welcome a newly elected and new Democratic president to town.

This happened only four previous times in this century. It hasn't happened since 1977.

Some political commentators believe -- and many more Democrats hope -- that the alignment will be a fortuitous one. Maybe not the dawning of a new Age of Aquarius, exactly, but at least a new relationship between Congress and president that will not in any way resemble the past four years, especially the last year.

That there has been gridlock in Washington is easily seen in some statistics. In his four years in the White House, President George Bush lost almost as many legislative battles as he won. On House and Senate roll call votes on which the president took a clear position in 1992, according to the annual study by Congressional Quarterly, he prevailed only 43 percent of the time. That is an Theo Lippman Jr. writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

For his entire term, 1987-1992, President Bush prevailed only 51.8 percent of the time. That is bad, but not extraordinarily so, measured by the historical record.

Ronald Reagan won only 51.7 percent of the roll calls he took a position on in his second term, 1985-1988. In Richard Nixon's second term (served out by Gerald Ford), 1973-1976, the two Republicans prevailed on 53.4 and 58.3 percent of roll calls, respectively. Dwight Eisenhower did better. He won on 64.5 roll calls in his second term, 1957-1960.

In every one of those cases except the Reagan second term, the Republican president was followed in office by a Democrat. And in each case, the Democratic Congress became much more cooperative.

* John Kennedy (1961-1963) won 84.6 percent of the roll calls he took a position on. That is, nearly a third more victories than President Eisenhower had claimed.

* Jimmy Carter (1977-1980) won 76.6 percent of the time Congress voted on matters he was interested enough in to take a stand, about half again better than Ford-Nixon's record.

So look for Bill Clinton to do dramatically better than George Bush, too. However, President Clinton may have a slight problem. Maybe two slight problems.

The first is the fact that his victory last November was not part of a partisan pattern. His Democrats did not gain a single seat in the Senate. They broke even, leaving their number at 57 of 100 total for the new Congress. The Democrats actually lost seats in the House of Representatives -- nine, leaving them with only 259 of 435.

Only 259? Yes, "only." That's the smallest number of House Democrats to welcome a newly-elected, change-of-administration Democratic president in this century. President Carter had 292 to help him in 1977. John Kennedy had 263 in 1961. Franklin D. Roosevelt had 313 in 1933. Woodrow Wilson had 290 in 1913.

Those 57 Democratic senators President Clinton will be counting on are fewer than were there for President Carter (62), President Kennedy (64) and President Roosevelt (59). President Wilson had less support (52) in the Senate than Bill Clinton will have. There were only 48 states then (and senators were elected by state legislatures then).

That Bill Clinton will have fewer allies on Capitol Hill than any freshman Democratic president in the century is partly a result of his not having won in a party victory. Presidents Roosevelt and Wilson dealt with Houses and Senates significantly more Democratic than the immediately previous ones. There were 62 more Democratic representatives in 1913 than in 1912 (in part due to an increase in the size of the House) and nine more Democratic senators. In 1933, compared to 1932, the Democratic increases were 97 in the House and 12 in the Senate.

John Kennedy and Jimmy Carter were not so fortunate. Democrats lost 20 House seats and two Senate seats in 1960. This was largely due to the fact that the party made abnormal gains in 1958 -- 49 House seats and 17 Senate seats; 1960's congressional voting was a correction. In 1976, Democrats managed to gain only one House seat and broke even in the Senate.

Those numbers plus the fact that both Carter and, especially, Kennedy won very narrow victories themselves explains why they were not more successful in getting more of their programs through Congress. While both those Democratic presidents did much better with Congress than their Republican predecessors

had done, the earlier president still lost about one roll call in six with a solidly Democratic Congress, and the latter lost one in four.

Both also lost on some core parts of their agendas. Neither Democratic president was as successful with Democratic Congresses as plain statistics suggest. Jimmy Carter left office on poor terms with some House Democrats -- and having had to defend himself in the 1980 Democratic presidential primary against an attack on him and his record by a presidential candidate from the congressional wing of the party, Sen. Ted Kennedy.

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