Assessing the 104th Congress: (This one is different)

Bill Frenzel
Bill Frenzel
Bill Frenzel Former Brookings Expert

March 1, 1996

It is rash to evaluate a Congress before its full two-year term has been completed. Assessing it on the basis of its first one-year session is even riskier. Still, while a proper review must come later, the 104th Congress has surely been interesting enough and different enough to warrant some kind of peek now.

To begin, the 104th’s first year, 1995, is grinding to its conclusion in 1996, with Congress and the President locked in a clash of wills over the budget. On the outcome of that struggle hangs nearly everything Congress has tried to accomplish this past year. Because the President has acquiesced to three key congressional demands—he accepts the budget balance date of 2002, agrees not to use the rosier economic scenario created by his Office of Management and Budget, and does not object to reliable enforcement mechanisms—some observers believe that Congress should declare victory. Congress, however, doesn’t feel like a winner. Perhaps unwisely, but completely in character, it wants more.

The Abnormalities

When the 104th reported for duty in Washington after the 1994 elections, its most important feature was the new Republican majorities in both bodies. In the Senate, that majority was abnormal. In the House, it was a miracle.

Senate Republicans had tasted majority status as recently as eight years ago and so had some experience managing issues, staffs, and procedures. In the House, no Republican even knew a party member who had served in the majority. Lacking experience, the rookies attacked their new chores with the only asset at hand, enthusiasm.

As luck would have it, Republican experience was in exactly the wrong place. Experience is less important in the Senate, which has no known rules save one: rewards go to those with the most persistence and staying power. In the House, where the important bills originate and tight rules and scheduling make experience a necessity, there was, as noted, only enthusiasm.

Republican first-termers in the House were a cohesive band of tree-shakers and wave-makers. Intolerant of government and of deficits and hungry for change, they did not come to learn or to cooperate or to compromise. Unlike their go-along- get-along predecessors of the past 25 years, they came to make war, not love. Arriving in Washington in that spirit is not unheard of, but they managed to resist the system’s blandishments and stay that way. The Senate’s new Republicans had similar inclinations. Senate rules and traditions made them look like pussycats compared with their House counterparts, but in fact they were only slightly less fierce.

House Republicans swiftly assumed the mantle of philosophical leadership, not only of Congress, but of the government. For the first 11 months of the year, the congressional majorities framed the issues, set the priorities, and almost completely eclipsed the President. From the State-of-the-Union speech until Veterans’ Day, the President remained out of sight. Inside the beltway, people thought Speaker Gingrich had kidnapped him. Outside the beltway, they thought the Speaker was the President. So did he. This is abnormal. Usually only senators think they are the President.

One more oddity was the brief appearance of King Caucus after 20 years of deep sleep. In the House his presence was hardly noted because the Speaker made a more easily identifiable and more abusable villain. Also, Republican solidarity was so strong that the King did not have to flex his muscles. His appearance in the Senate was also a cameo. He was restored to his coffin when an attempt to discipline a Republican Senator for a “bad” vote on the Balanced Budget Amendment failed.

The Events

After the election, the new majorities got off to a running start. In the winner-take- all environment of the House, they pushed their Contract with America to votes within the first 100 days as promised. Although the Contract had not been taken very seriously by the public, House Republicans were determined to honor it. Since the Senate was similarly inclined, the Contract became the glue that held the majorities together in both houses. Until Easter, it consumed the total energies of both. House Republicans, often with help from Democrats, passed all but one Contract item. In the winner-take-very-little Senate, many Contract bills foundered or were greatly changed.

After Easter the budget became the core of majority efforts for the year. With much of the Contract stymied in the Senate, the idea of using the budget process to create and enforce a balanced budget became the proxy for the whole Contract. The proxy was easier to pass in the Senate because a reconciliation bill is not subject to filibuster. But, being vastly more complicated than the Contract, it was much harder to manage.

Inexperience was about to bite the House Republicans. They had no trouble stepping up to philosophical leadership, but moving the program was more difficult. Lack of experience slowed the progress of both appropriations and reconciliation bills. The failure to have these bills ready by the end of the fiscal year allowed the President to escape from the shadow of his eclipse. Congressional momentum slowed. The President’s began to pick up.

Democrats in Congress, new to their minority role, played it poorly at first. Under House rules, the minority is so impotent that extraordinary solidarity and leadership are required to have any influence at all. House Democrats probably could not have changed the tide of the battle there in any case, but they could have made the President look better sooner. To compensate, as noted, the Republicans helped by making him look better later.

In the Senate, the minority learned its relatively stronger role more quickly. Assisted by one Republican defection, Senate Democrats held the 34 votes needed to stop the Balanced Budget Amendment in the first 100 days. Thus they established themselves as a potent force whose later filibuster threats had to be taken seriously. For the most part, they were ready, willing, and able to support their President. They stopped the momentum of the Contract, and, by midsummer, were a highly effective minority.

As the Contract dominated the first 100 days, the budget and appropriations process dominated the rest of the session. Majority groups in both bodies were able to agree on a common budget plan, but not until late in the year. The delay gave the President a chance to look decisive and leaderly, while Congress looked clumsy. That veto looked better in November than it might have looked on September 30, and it enabled the President to snatch the political initiative, and poll approval, from the Republicans.

Even under worsening circumstances, the majorities in both bodies stood their ground. So did the President. Aided by an update of economic assumptions in December, both sides should have been able to reach a conclusion in which each could claim bragging rights. They have not made it yet.

The Characteristics

In terms of reform, the House performed well, providing modest jurisdictional change, democratizing the House by term-limiting chairmen, promoting first-term members from apprentice to journeyman status, and consolidating power and responsibility in the hands of the Speaker. The Senate, the continuing body, plodded along in much the same old weary way. One of its shining hours saw the majority help save the minority from unilateral disarmament on the vote to abolish the filibuster.

Operationally, the year was untidy. Inexperienced leadership, long and acrimonious sessions, contentious issues, and wearied members revealed more warts and blemishes in the House than the country wanted to see. The sight, however, was not too much for the press, which wallowed in the worst of it. The Senate, normally a paragon of comity, civility, and gentlemanly back-scratching, occasionally looked as nasty as the House.

As for leadership, 1995 provided an interesting mix of old faces (Dole, Domenici, Gephardt, and Bonior) and newer ones (Gingrich, Kasich, Armey, Daschle). Newcomers Gingrich and Daschle were particularly adept in wielding the weapons of leadership. It is easy to criticize the delays in developing the budget and the reconciliation bill, but the changes were not marginal.

Monumental policy changes don’t come easily, especially in legislatures elected as much on a regional as on a partisan basis. In fact, Chairmen Kasich and Domenici made a miraculous unity out of disparate budgets. Turning the tax cut into a silk purse was harder, but nobody is perfect. Measured by promises made and kept, it was a pretty good year. Current criticism concerns the wisdom of the promises made and the unwillingness to compromise them. It does not concern the promise-keeping itself. That still seems to be considered good form in some political quarters.

New majorities brought new issues. Deregulation, devolution, and downsizing began to get action rather than lip service. Inevitably, as with every major issue, the dark side, in this case the demeaning of legitimate government service, came along too.

With respect to the usual statistical benchmarks—times of sitting, votes cast, laws enacted—the 104th Congress looks to be a hard worker with low productivity. Meeting times and numbers of votes were at record levels, while laws enacted were as scarce as hens’ teeth. None of these measures is very useful in evaluating a Congress. Congress is not paid by the hour, nor is a flood of new laws necessarily welcomed by the voters.


Most people know whether they like the 104th Congress’s goals and style. For a more considered evaluation, a flock of questions about this session must be answered personally by each American. The most obvious questions concern the Contract, its usefulness, the energy expended; the exclusive focus on the budget after Easter; the strategies of government shutdown and expiration of the debt ceiling; the role and aggressiveness of the new Republicans; the role of the Speaker and cooperation between him and the Senate Majority Leader.

The elections of 1992 and 1994 indicated that the public wanted change and that issues mattered. Polls now show Congress slipping in public favor because it pursued its goals too aggressively, the President climbing because he is defending the status quo. But current polls have only current meaning. Congress may have had misgivings, but it did not back down.

The voters will reveal their judgments in November. By then the whole budget issue may have faded away, and the usual factors, incumbency and the state of the economy, may decide the elections. Some members may be defeated because their positions were too extreme, but the voters are still restive, and business as usual is not a sure path to success either.

The Envelope, Please

Congress should be evaluated on whether its goals were worthy and whether they were achieved. Unfortunately, the most aggressive Congresses, and the 104th was certainly one, are seldom judged on their own terms. This nontraditional Congress demanded big changes in the course of government, especially social policy. Its goals were neither votes nor laws nor feeling good.

In assessing its work, it is better not to compare this Congress with its more traditional predecessors. Unique may be too strong an adjective, but surely this Congress is different. Better, more up to date, real-world comparisons might be with the Japanese Diet, the German Bundestag, or the Westminster Parliament, all of which have faced difficult modern problems with minimum successes.

Personal performance ought to be assessed a little differently too. Often the Republicans looked like a clumsy majority, but the Democrats seemed an inept minority too. In fact, both toiled, sometimes in vain but always faithfully and enthusiastically for positions dearly held. If the entire cast of characters seemed excessively meanspirited, well, politics is not touch football.

For 1995, present this Congress no medals for efficiency. Don’t give it any “Miss Congeniality” awards for being nice. No pragmatism citations for clever compromise are in order either. Give it no points for neatness and none for style and grace. It did not seek and does not deserve any of those tributes.

Instead, give it a small ribbon for dreaming big dreams of big change. Throw in another for courage, for willingness to take big risks for big principles. Add one more for persistence, for hanging tough when nearly everybody advised it to cave in. You need not gild the lily by making these ribbons red, white, and blue. That’s optional.

In sum, the first session of the 104th Congress may have been better than you thought.