This Congress

an Editorial from the Wall Street Journal

 Four years ago at election time, the American
 people were so enervated by the two major
 parties' offerings in the presidential campaign
 that they dumped nearly 20% of their vote onto
 a third party candidate. But one piece of the
 political landscape got voters' blood boiling:
 Congress, that bastion of "gridlock," was at its
 lowest popular ebb in modern times. Two years
 later, of course, the voters transferred control
 of the full Congress to the Republican Party,
 now gathered in San Diego. We assume their
 mandate was "do something." But despite this
 historic transition, the consensus wafting from
 the political barracks is that this new Congress,
 led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, has been in
 some vague sense a manifest
 failure--"unpopular" because "most" Americans
 think it's "extremist." And so on.
 This sentiment grows largely out of the
 compost heap of public opinion polling, and
 while we're not quite ready to bury polls as a
 tool of politics, we're becoming fairly impatient
 with seeing them used as a substitute for any
 sort of effort to think seriously about politics
 outside the context of these polls. The record of
 the GOP Congress is a case in point.
 The "extremist" gripe grows largely out of the
 politics of Medicare reform, with the White
 House and the AFL-CIO broadcasting to the
 public that the Republican House is planning a
 wanton assault on grandma and her medical
 care. Now, we understand that politics ain't
 beanbag, but we worry about a political culture
 that reduces all of its arguments to melodrama.
 At the convention in San Diego, for instance,
 there is almost a palpable sense among some of
 the media that their week will be ruined unless
 Christie Whitman and Phyllis Schlafly are seen
 rolling in the dirt down on Harbor Drive over
 the abortion plank. Only at the level of political
 bloodsport do we recognize an "issue"
 In fact, Medicare itself is merely a delivery system
 for a service. The real issue here is entitlements--the
 idea born in the anxious years of the New Deal that
 government should make certain kinds of income
 transfers automatic, that is, beyond politics. In time
 Washington's refusal to revisit these "nonpolitical"
 guarantees, except when
 Rep. Henry Waxman was expanding them,
 eventually caused entitlement theory to collapse
 under a crushing cost burden. So now, after
 years of presidents trying to get Congress to act
 responsibly on entitlements, a GOP Congress
 finally does it and this President decides to
 veto, and then transforms a serious argument
 into merely an issue of "Republican extremism."
 If the ploy works politically this year, Congress
 may not behave this responsibly again for a
 decade. But if Republicans keep their majority
 this year, their Medicare reform will go down as
 historic, the year in which politicians touched
 the ``third rail'' and survived.
 In identifying why the Democratic Congress fell
 so low in public esteem, surely among the
 reasons was the sense that it had degraded into
 little more than a canning factory for diffuse,
 even arcane, special interests. While virtually
 the entire private sector upgraded its ability to
 focus on goals and operate efficiently, Congress
 remained inert.
 Newt Gingrich managed the feat of uniting
 Republicans behind a single, publicly
 identifiable agenda defined more or less by the
 Contract. At least within Congress, gridlock
 vanished--in contrast to the Democrats of
 1993-1994, who failed even to take a vote on
 health care. Now with a Congress acting in a
 way that represents a clear political will, Mr.
 Clinton has gone along with the first phaseout
 of a farm entitlement--on corn and wheat--since
 the New Deal. This Congress is also the first to
 genuinely cut discretionary spending since
 1981-1982. It is especially important as a
 political matter because this is the pool of
 money from which traditional Congressional
 logrolling is done. Republicans cut their own
 social pork barrel.
 As for reform, the line-item veto represents a
 remarkable event, the giving up of institutional
 power to the presidency. It is a direct reversal
 from the gradual expropriation of power--war
 powers, budget acts--that occurred since the
 Watergate era. The one failure here was term
 limits, alas. Nonetheless the Contract's first
 days of Congressional reforms--ending
 Congress's unconscionable immunity from laws
 it imposed on everyone else, putting term limits
 on baronial committee chairmen--were a
 remarkable smashing of the barnacles on the
 Beltway rust bucket.
 Then there's telecom and welfare, which
 history may see as most important for the
 direction they set. They are both acts of
 modesty, in that they cede power to others
 (markets in communications, states in welfare)
 rather than try to dictate from Washington. This
 may be the Congress's best legacy.
 Republicans erred, as a tactical matter, in
 believing they could pass their overall budget
 without the White House. They could have
 pursued the do-nothing strategy George
 Mitchell used to frustrate George Bush. But
 they gambled on governing.
 It would have done even more if President
 Clinton hadn't used his veto. In using his veto,
 Mr. Clinton and Dick Morris have been
 skillfully cynical, claiming to agree with the
 GOP direction while picking a few popular
 items to demagogue and veto, with Medicare
 the most obvious example.
 But for all of that, Congress has succeeded in
 changing the political direction of the country,
 moving a liberal President to their side
 rhetorically, and even forcing Dick Gephardt to
 embrace the principle of a balanced budget. If
 Democrats had done half as much they'd still be
 in the majority.

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