Will 1995 Be the Year of the Newt?

January 03, 1995

Next year for only the third time in American history, a Democratic president will have to deal with a Republican Congress. Harry Truman did in 1947 and 1948, and Woodrow Wilson did in 1919 and 1920. But in neither case were the Republicans as starved for power and hungry for change as they are today, especially in the U.S. House of Representatives. It has been Democratic for 40 years. That is more than twice as long as the pre-1947 Republican drought and more than four times as long as pre-1919.

In addition, the Republican victory in the House, and to a lesser extent in the Senate, last November was unusually ideological. There were fewer individual winners and losers. It was almost like an institutional revolution. Newt Gingrich, the next speaker of the House, shows every sign of wanting to take control of the national agenda away from the president of the United States. He doesn't want merely to reshape and modify the president's legislation and budget, but to write his own. Some Democrats in Congress are with him on that.

Another distinction between 1995, 1947 and 1919 is that presidential campaigns start earlier now and have a greater impact on public opinion and hence on the governing, legislating and budgeting processes. At least one nomination contest is going to start in earnest in 1995 in the Republican Party. There may be one in the Democratic Party before Congress recesses in the fall. Ross Perot may announce in 1995 that he plans to run again as the mad-as-hell United We Stand, America candidate, and Jesse Jackson says he may try to get liberals and blacks to unite behind him in a new party. Paul Tsongas has already begun to pressure Colin Powell to run as presidential nominee of a centrist party.

Presidential politics aside, 1995 could be a year in which a basic change is made in the federal governing process. The Republicans have promised to reduce the congressional bureaucracy and to reform congressional rules. They have promised to create an environment where legislative bi-partisanship is encouraged.

If leaders on Capitol Hill are to succeed in tipping the scales from presidential government to congressional government, those changes are essential. But changing the process and the center of gravity of power in Washington will not be enough. Outcomes have to change. Revolutions often proceed by stages, with one set of winners devoured by the next. If a "Gingrich Congress" merely produces a different sort of irresponsible pandering to the public, such as we have seen on taxes in recent weeks, the skepticism and fed-upness that motivated voters in November will intensify. A great many Americans will turn their eyes away from Washington and toward Sacramento and Boston and state capitals in between for solutions to their problems -- and for national leadership.

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