Gingrich & Co. Gain Ground but Can't Yet Claim Final Triumph
AT the end of the rollicking first 100 days of the 104th Congress, it is clear that Speaker Newt Gingrich has started a legislative process that has at least begun to profoundly affect the United States.
Republicans, in the majority on Capitol Hill for the first time in 40 years, have begun dismantling the social structures of former Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson and the regulatory state of President Richard Nixon. They have seized the agenda from the White House, where it has resided since the New Deal in the 1930s. They are attempting to create a model of government to suit the Information Age.
But revolutions, like good baseball swings, require strong follow-throughs. The success of Representative Gingrich's goals depend more on what happens now that he has laid a foundation. And that is not entirely within his control. The Senate, president, and public must follow.
''We knew there was a revolution in the Soviet Union when statues of the old Bolsheviks fell,'' says John Pitney, a political scientist at the Claremont McKenna College in California. ''Now the Republicans have to deliver on their promise to cut the size of government without losing the middle class.''
Last September, Republicans from across the country gathered on the Capitol steps and set forth an agenda they said they would enact within the first 100 days, if the voters gave them control of Congress. Six weeks later, Americans gave the GOP what it asked for.
Today, 93 frenzied days after Gingrich was handed the gavel, Congress breaks, having achieved a legislative record unprecedented in modern times. House Republicans passed nine of 10 provisions in the Contract With America, and held the first (though unsuccessful) floor vote on a constitutional amendment to limit congressional tenure.
Many of the votes came after decades of debate. Republicans had sought legal reform and the line-item veto for nearly 20 years. Though the balanced-budget amendment ultimately died in the Senate (by one vote), its passage in the House capped 60 years of on-off consideration.
Further, the shift in party dominance, along with a package of congressional reforms, has changed the way Congress works, perhaps permanently. And Gingrich (R) of Georgia has centralized power in the House in a manner unmatched since the turn of the century.
The impact of this opening session is significant. The Republicans have kept their promises, and polls indicate new public confidence in a much-tarnished institution. For the first time in 60 years, Americans are looking to Congress, not the White House, for policy direction.
''It is astonishing that politicians would want to carry out what they said they would, even though [some of the provisions] would limit their powers,'' says Michael Paulson, a political and constitutional scholar at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. ''It is a measure of the seriousness with which they take their reforms.''
But the record House Republicans have built in the past three months isn't without problems. In 1933, when Roosevelt entered the White House, the country was in economic crisis. The new president called an emergency session of Congress, and 100 days later the two branches of government had enacted 15 major new laws, including the Emergency Banking Act and the Tennessee Valley Authority Act.
Gingrich can point to passage in the House, but not enactment into law. Rushing to meet their deadline, House Republicans pushed some hastily crafted legislation over to a skeptical Senate, where the balanced-budget amendment has already failed.
Other bills appear to be in trouble, including welfare reform and tax cuts. And President Clinton has threatened to veto other items, such as the GOP crime bill.
Early success to revolution?
Ultimately, if too many provisions from the Contract fail in the Senate or die by veto, voters in 1996 may not remember the early achievements of the House. To turn early success into revolutionary change, congressional experts argue, Gingrich will have to make major strides toward balancing the budget and reducing the size of the federal government.
''You can start to use the word revolution if the Republicans take down some federal agencies,'' Professor Pitney says.
That may happen. There is growing support among Republicans in both the House and Senate to decrease or eliminate such agencies as Education, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development.
Whether or not Republicans achieve such goals, they have fundamentally altered the direction of political discourse in America, bringing policymaking more in line with the mood of the electorate.
The best measure of this may be the Democrats. When Mr. Clinton came into office, says Ron Peters, a political scientist at the University of Oklahoma, he pushed the rhetoric of a moderate, but sought tax increases and big-government health-care reform.
''It is inconceivable that Bill Clinton, if reelected, would push anything similar,'' he says. ''Nor would a large Democratic freshman class embrace the policies of the past.''