The 105th: It Could’ve Been a Contender

Sarah A. Binder and Thomas E. Mann

No amount of last-minute spinning and credit claiming can obscure the reality that by any reasonable standard the 105th Congress has been strikingly unproductive.

True, the frantic scramble last week to reach agreement on the omnibus spending bill finally succeeded in arming members of Congress with some semblance of legislative achievement with which to battle their opponents in the last few weeks of the campaign.

But imagine what President Harry Truman would have done with the record of this Congress. His broadside on the “do-nothing” 80th Congress scored politically. Yet that Congress, which passed the Marshall Plan, the National Security Act, the Taft-Hartley Act, the Water Pollution Act, aid to Greece and Turkey, and the 22nd Amendment (limiting presidents to two terms) looks like a rival to the Great Society Congress when compared with the 105th.

The conventional explanation for such a poor showing is divided government. But something more characterized the politics of the 105th, even before Monica Lewinsky broke onto the scene. An impoverished legislative record was foreshadowed by a relatively small ideological center in the Congress, a slim Republican majority in the House, a filibuster-strapped Senate and an approaching midterm election.

That this Congress would produce such a meager legislative harvest was not obvious when it convened in January 1997. Both encouraged and chastised by the results of the 1996 elections, President Clinton and the Republican majority felt obliged to reach an agreement to balance the budget by 2002. That agreement, aided immeasurably by an unexpected spurt in revenues, was not especially impressive in its deficit-reduction provisions, which were dwarfed by the more ambitious measures enacted in 1990 and 1993.

Nonetheless, the agreement’s parts—a $500-per-child tax credit, Medicare restructuring, health insurance for poor children and a reversal of restrictions on welfare benefits for legal immigrants—were more consequential than the whole, justly earning it the trophy for the most important enactment of this Congress.

The first session also produced modest but significant legislation to streamline procedures for approving new drugs and medical devices at the Food and Drug Administration and for facilitating the adoption of abused and neglected children. The Chemical Weapons Convention was ratified by the Senate (as was NATO expansion the following year) and the Congress let stand President Clinton’s decision to extend most-favored-nation status to China.

Yet there were early signs of a poisonous political atmosphere, with ugly confrontation and deadlock going well beyond the norm for a divided government. The first item of business in the 105th Congress was the extraordinary reprimand and fine of Speaker Newt Gingrich for violations of House rules, which eerily set the tone for one of the last, and certainly the most visible, actions of this Congress: the vote in the House to open a formal impeachment inquiry of President Clinton.

The first session also witnessed the failure of the Republican majority to muster the super-majorities needed to pass constitutional amendments to require a balanced budget and impose term limits, and to override the president’s veto of a bill banning late-term abortions. More ominously, the Senate blocked three high-profile presidential nominations: former Massachusetts governor William Weld as ambassador to Mexico, Bill Lann Lee as assistant attorney general for civil rights and David Satcher as surgeon general. These were the opening shots in a war over confirmations that has produced a historic backlog of vacancies in the judicial and executive branches.

And Congress made no progress whatsoever on a host of important policy challenges: fast-track trade negotiating authority, campaign finance reform, electric utility deregulation, product liability, financial services overhaul, regulatory reform, Superfund reauthorization, juvenile crime and education reform.

At the start of the second session of the 105th Congress, there was little sense of urgency to build a more productive legislative record. A booming economy was turning deficits into surpluses and a more content citizenry largely tuned out of politics and policymaking in Washington. Gingrich signaled that a leisurely pace was the order of the day by announcing a calendar for 1998 that provided for fewer legislative days than any year in memory.

The dramatic news in late January of the scandal involving Lewinsky reinforced the speaker’s inclination to keep legislative battles from stepping on his party’s good fortune. The Republican leadership was wary of a renewed alliance between the president and congressional Democrats around a legislative agenda (education, health, the environment and Social Security) that had at least a surface popular appeal and sought to avoid confrontation on unfavorable policy terrain.

On a number of major initiatives—a tobacco settlement, HMO regulation and campaign finance reform—the Republican leadership adopted a rope-a-dope strategy, lying back, delaying action, waiting for opposition interests to alter the climate of opinion. The issues the Republicans championed were either consensual in nature (Internal Revenue Service restructuring and the pork-laden highway bill, the only major pieces of legislation enacted into law in 1998) or intensely popular with their social conservative base (tax cuts, educational vouchers and savings accounts, abortion restrictions and penalties for flag burning). Little leadership capital was invested in those second-tier but significant issues that had stalled in the first session.

Squabbles among Republicans in the House and Senate on tax cuts prevented the adoption of a joint budget resolution for the first time since enactment of the 1974 Budget Act, and set the stage for delay in the passage of the regular appropriations bills and the deferral until the last hours of the 105th Congress the resolution of countless disputes with the president.

With the president willing to risk a government shutdown and happy to turn public attention to his budget disputes with the Republicans, Democrats probably salvaged more of their agenda in the final appropriations battle. But their achievements fell well short of the ambitious plans outlined by the president in his most recent State of the Union speech, an agenda that was to be financed largely with a new tobacco tax.

Republicans, too, won some concessions in the final round of negotiations, but they had precious little of consequence to show to their core constituencies. Most noticeably absent was the tax cut that was their top priority throughout the year.

The usual culprit for such slim legislative bounty is opposite party control of Congress and the presidency. Divided government exacerbates partisan and institutional rivalries between the branches, making it more difficult to forge legislative compromise. But divided government alone cannot explain the record of the 105th. The Marshall Plan in 1948, landmark clean air and water laws in 1970, and major tax reform in 1986—all these were products of divided governments. In 1996 as well, Clinton and the Republican Congress reached notable compromises on welfare and health care reform.

Divided government may raise the bar for reaching agreement across the branches, but clearly something more matters in shaping the legislative record. Often overlooked is the salutary effect of a vibrant political center.

Although this Congress’s preoccupation with impeachment invites comparisons to the Watergate Congress, the historical analogy is amiss. The 93rd enacted a host of landmark laws, on foreign trade, war powers, campaign finance and budget control, among others.

Such legislative prowess was possible in part because political centrists made up a third of House and Senate rosters. By our count, political moderates today fill barely one-tenth the ranks of Congress. No wonder Congress failed to regulate tobacco, reform campaign laws, protect patients’ rights, or even reach agreement on a simple budget resolution. As political moderates disappear and polarized partisans take their place, gridlock becomes a more prominent feature of our politics.

It did not help that the House Republican majority was small and ideologically fractured. With a margin of 11 seats, Republicans desperately needed to hold their ranks together to move legislation through the House. But that often proved impossible when the handful of remaining moderate Republicans bolted to join Democrats in opposing conservative initiatives.

When the small Republican majority did manage to move legislation through the House, super-majority rules favoring legislative minorities in the Senate killed issues on the left and right. Republican filibusters blocked new campaign finance and tobacco laws, while Democratic filibusters stopped conservative labor reform and missile defense initiatives.

But something else distinguishes the lackluster 105th Congress from its more productive predecessors. In 1995, the new House Republican majority took office with a concrete legislative plan, even if the Senate often balked at its conservative excess and that substantial adjustments had to be made to render it more palatable to the public. No such agenda marked the return of the Republican majority in the 105th. With the balanced budget and tax-cut deal completed in 1997, Republicans were content to rest on the laurels of the first budget surplus in nearly 30 years.

What’s more, the few legislative issues put on the table were colored by impending midterm elections in November. Without the president on the ballot, neither party had an incentive to move to the center to reach legislative agreement as they did in 1996, when appeals to swing voters were essential.

Instead, firing up the conservative base became the mantra of congressional Republicans. Votes on tax cuts, abortion limits and, of course, impeachment play well with social conservatives—the stalwart Republican base in a historically low-turnout midterm election year.

For the Democrats, fighting to increase the minimum wage and to hire more teachers galvanizes their own core liberal base. Such electoral incentives helped produce numerous legislative casualties this year.

What, then, is the legacy of the 105th? Its dismal legislative record will barely register when its history is written. Its moniker instead will be “the Monica Congress.”

Ironically, the 105th could have been remembered for its balanced budget agreement, cementing the nation’s fiscal solvency. Instead, Republicans ended the session with a fateful and largely unpopular march toward impeachment, trampling its modest legislative record underfoot. Where and how that march ends will determine the final chapter of that legacy.