GOP Chance to Reform Congress

November 10, 1994

Only twice before in this century have the Republicans achieved control of Congress during Democratic presidencies. The first instance came in 1918 when the GOP majority in the Senate so dominated an ailing Woodrow Wilson that a 12-year Republican hold on the White House commenced with the 1920 election. The second instance came in 1946 when the Eightieth Congress confronted a combative Harry Truman who hung the "do nothing" yoke around the GOP neck and marched on to his upset victory in 1948.

Now, after Tuesday's landmark landslide, the Republicans again are the majority party on both sides of Capitol Hill. They certainly don't want a repetition of the debacle they suffered at the hands of President Truman, nor in the current political atmosphere can they get away with the destructive tactics they applied to President Wilson.

Public approval of Congress as an institution has sunk to a record low of 16 percent. Voters are fed up with perks and pork, gridlock and graft, special interests and unspecified accountability. If the Republicans fail to reform Congress after screaming about the abuses of what seemed to be a permanent Democratic majority, they will get the blame that comes with responsibility.

The incoming Republican speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, says his new position will alter his tactics. As minority whip, he has thrown block after block against President Clinton's legislative initiatives and brick after brick at Democratic rules stacked against the GOP. But on victory night, he promised cooperation with the White House as did the Senate GOP leader, Bob Dole, lately a master of the procedural filibuster.

Legislation during the next two years is a matter to be worked out with Mr. Clinton. But as far as reform of a bloated, imperial Congress is concerned, this is a task for the lawmakers alone -- and especially the new GOP majority. The Republican "Contract with America" authored by Mr. Gingrich includes proposals that would vastly improve the operations of Congress: a one-third cut in the number of committees and committee staff; limits to the terms of all committee chairmen, zero-based budgeting and a line-item veto.

It will be fascinating, however, to see whether the Republicans jettison rules that contributed to 40 years of Democratic "tyranny" now that they will inherit them. For members of both parties, the modern Congress has turned into an incumbent-protection society, providing lawmakers with large staffs, franking privileges, too many committee assignments and protection from many laws that apply to all other citizens.

So we welcome this first-in-two-generations shift of power on Capitol Hill. If it leads to reforms to make Congress a better institution, perhaps partisan warfare will diminish and productive legislation will emerge.

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