Media coverage tends to emphasize presidential politics, but the real center of governmental action these days is on Capitol Hill. The present Congress already has produced more legislative and attitudinal change than any Congress in a quarter of a century. Moreover, the record shows that members of the Republican majority did something their critics cannot honestly deny: they kept their promises.
In terms of substance, a comparison of the “Contract with America” that House Republicans and some senatorial candidates campaigned upon in 1994 and the “Families First Agenda” that House Democratic leaders are proposing for 1996 is also telling. Where the GOP Contract aimed at long-term, systemic reforms, the Democratic Agenda is a form of Great Society Lite.
If you recall from early last year, the new Republican majority voted, as pledged, on all ten Contract items within the new session’s first three months. An immediate priority was a series of reforms of Congressional operations. These, for example, cut House administration costs, streamlined services, privatized commercial operations and reduced the number of central staff by 40 percent. “What’s impressive is the size of the overhaul that they’ve managed so quickly,” said William B. Parent, executive director of Innovations in American Government, an awards program of the Ford Foundation.
In one form or another, Republicans in both houses managed to pass their anti-crime bills and many of their national security proposals. They provided the line item budget veto authority that many presidents, including Clinton, have long sought and that Democratic majorities long denied. They ended the practice of creating federal programs that states and localities would have to fund later–so-called “unfunded mandates.”
The first major reform of telecommunications law in six decades was accomplished, a boost to US leadership in the high tech field. Republicans combatted discrimination against older workers by raising the Social Security earnings limit to $30,000. They enacted the first of their proposed litigation reforms, affecting securities, overcoming the trial attorneys lobby and a Clinton veto to do so.
Congressional Republicans also passed a balanced budget, one of their most important aims, but here they lacked the votes to over-ride a veto. With this defeat their $500 per child tax credit and an end to the marriage penalty in the income tax also went down. Likewise, while House Republicans were able to muster a majority on term limits, it was not the two-thirds majority needed to pass the issue on to the states as a constitutional amendment; and the bill also failed in the Senate. The GOP got a sufficiently big House majority (300 to 132) for a balanced budget amendment, but once more failed to gain sufficient support in the Senate–falling short by one vote. They pledged to try again next year.
Lately, on the third try, they were able to pass a sweeping welfare plan that the president finally would agree to sign. Even a Republican Congress under Ronald Reagan had not enjoyed such a victory. Alongside it came a tax credit for the costs of adoption, an IRA reform that makes that savings instrument available for at-home parents, and some tax relief for small businesses, all of which are long time conservative objectives. They compromised with Democrats to enact portability of health insurance and squeezed the new concept of medical savings accounts into the bill, as a pilot project.
Overall, this record is an impressive down-payment on a more economical federal government and the goal of devolving more power to lower levels of government, families and individuals.
Of course, the Republicans made mistakes. It was foolish to waste time and moral capital on environmental proposals that would answer over-regulation by government with new over-regulation of the government. Speaker Gingrich, among others, finally recognized that a policy that is clearly pro-environment as well as pro-economy is the only one that will prevail with either the public or the Congress.
From a public relations standpoint, at least, it was a mistake to propose reductions in the current rate of growth of Medicare costs, for it was obvious that the president was ready and able to demogogue on this issue.
In the budgetary realm as a whole, media and Democratic representations of Republican economies made them appear more severe than the reality. But it also is fair to say that the deficit reductions realized in the past two years would not have been possible without the billions in savings the Republican Congress forced upon the Clinton Administration. Even failing to pass a budget at all for long periods–which hurt GOP poll numbers–helped lower federal spending and stabilize the economy. For what it’s worth, the GOP also extracted a promise from the president to produce a balanced budget by 2002.
What next awaits the Republicans if they continue as a majority is a full scale effort to help average Americans to save and invest safely for their future.That should be the goal of reforming tax and entitlement policies.
Meanwhile, what do we hear from Congressional Democrats’ “Families First Agenda?” In addition to health care portability and an increase in the minimum wage, both of which Congress, in a compromise, already passed, the “Agenda” offers more federal job training programs…more federal college tuition aid…health insurance for children…federally mandated minimum education requirements…an increased day care credit. Most of these ideas assume that the federal government needs to decide how people should spend their money. Moreover, even from a liberal perspective, they hardly amount to much. Talk about a lack of vision!
That is the real difference. Congressional Republicans have had the more far-reaching and well-considered program, and, as the current session shows, the discipline to follow through. Agree or disagree with their policies, but give them credit for that.