The Republican Congress: The first fifty days (1995) | THINK TANK

The Republican Congress: The first fifty days (1995) | THINK TANK


Ben: Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg. Driven by a feisty new Congress, the American
political dialogue has been transformed a sense of foment is palpable. New items are on the table for good or for
ill. Now, politicians always pledged stark action
in the first hundred days. Well, we are now 50 days into a new congressional
term and this time something is going on, changing Republicans, Democrats, and the country. Joining us to examine what’s happening are
Tom Foley, former Speaker of the House of Representatives and member of Congress for
30 years. Vin Weber, also a former member of Congress,
and now senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota. Isabel Sawhill, former associate director
at the Office of Management and Budget in the Clinton administration and now a senior
fellow at the Urban Institute, and Charles Jones, Senior Fellow of government studies
at the Brookings Institution and author of “The Presidency In A Separated System.” The topic before the house, the first 50 days,
this week on “Think Tank.” In early January, roughly 50 days ago, the
new Republican majority in the House of Representatives began a marathon legislative session, lots
of votes, lots of late nights, lots of headlines, but what have they really done? Much of the republican contract with America
deals with process, not policies. So far, the House of Representatives has passed
a balanced budget amendment, a line item veto, prohibitions against unfunded mandates, a
bill applying all laws to Congress, and has cut congressional committees and committee
staffs. But this Congress is also going deep into
policy as part of the contract or separate from it. For some examples. Remember President Clinton’s campaign pledge
to end welfare as we know it? That was regarded as radical “Two years in
house,” he said. Well, now the debate has gone far beyond that,
the Republican plan for good or for ill involves eliminating the entitlement status of welfare
all together, ending welfare for unmarried teenage mothers and sending the whole deal
back to the States. The Republican crime bill, for good or for
ill, puts thugs in the slammer for more time even if it might dilute constitutional protections
against unreasonable search and seizure. And suddenly, affirmative action on the table
and under siege and Republican presidential candidates are in full throat. Texas Republican senator Phil Gramm has declared,
“If I become president, in my first executive order I will overturn quotas, preferences,
and set-asides.” What is going on pleases some and outrages
others. For example, New York congressman Charles
Rangel said. Charles: The assault on affirmative action
is a part of a political strategy to attack minorities, the poor, and to allow those people
who are frustrated because of lack of financial or security in the United States to scapegoat
minorities, immigrants, and poor folks. Ben: Tom Foley, what is your interpretation
of what is going on up there? Tom: Well, first of all, let me make three
points about the contract with America. First of all, it’s a house contract, it’s
not a senate contract. The senate is not engaged in any promises
of that kind. Secondly, the contract itself was cautioned
or conditioned on the sense that it was only an obligation to bring these issues up for
a vote. Actually, many of them have come up for votes
in the last Congress and the Congress before that. I think there was an implicit theory, though,
that somehow the public thought, those of them that knew about the contract before the
election, that it meant passing it. Thirdly, I don’t think it had very much to
do, the contract with America had very much to do with the election result. I don’t think most people knew about the contract
with America when they voted. So the concept of a mandate, the people having
voted for the contract in the last election, I think is specious. However, having said that, I think it’s a
rather important post election system of setting a certain number of goals before the Congress,
the house in this case, and then engaging the press and sort of ticking them off, how
many have been passed and so on. I think the tendency, you mentioned for good
or ill, the tendency is not to evaluate them as much as to count them. This is what I think the press does very well. It counts. It does horse races. We’re halfway around the track, how many have
been passed? But I think the sober analysis is yet to come. Ben: Okay. Bel Sawhill. Isabel: Well, I agree with a lot that Tom
has said about this. I think that if you were trying to judge where
we were in the horse race, you’d have to say that the supporters of the contract are doing
very well right now. They’ve gotten about 50% of the port of the
various items in the contract not only brought to a vote in the house, which is what they
promised, but even passed, at least by the house. Now, I think the tough part is still to come. All the easy things came first. They were more procedural as you suggested. The much tougher issues are going to be things
like welfare reform, how do we cut taxes? How do we bring spending under control? And that’s gonna be a little more difficult
than what’s been done so far. Ben: Chuck Jones. Chuck: Well, it’s historic and therefore a
little scary. Imagine a political party in a midterm election
having a platform that an awful lot of these candidates signed on to. So they made promises they said they were
going to do. And I agree with Tom that, as far as the voters
were concerned, how much did they really know about the contract? Very little. But the democrats amplified the result considerably
by paying a lot of attention to it. Therefore, afterwards, you get this concocted
interpretation that there is a mandate, and Congress is at work. Imagine, they’ve had 145 roll call votes so
far in the house of representatives compared to 30 two years ago, and there’s a lot in
the pipeline. They’ve had 143 committee hearings or committee
meetings in January alone, compared to 30 or so, 39 I think, two years ago. So the place is busy and there’s a lot of
attention to what’s going on up there. Ben: Vin Weber. Vin: Ben, the first words out of your mouth
in introducing this program were, “Driven by a feisty new Congress.” And that’s the biggest reality that we ought
to at least spend a couple of minutes talking about. The Congress, for the first time in my memory
is driving the national agenda, not the president. And what’s more, it’s not the entire Congress. It’s really the House of Representatives that’s
driving the national agenda for the first time in a long, long period of time. I agree with Tom Foley’s assessment of the
contract. I don’t think it had much to do with the election. But it’s proven to be a brilliant management
tool, if you will, in terms of allowing the new house republican majority to drive that
agenda to change the way the house does business. It’s kind of interesting to me. I remember in the early days of the Clinton
administration, people said, “Well, what a mistake he made. He brought up gays in the military, and spending
package, there was a stimulus package. He should have started with some easier things
first and build support.” Now that’s exactly what the House Republicans
have done and yet, Bel and others are saying, “Well, of course they’ve started with the
easy stuff. The hard stuff is yet to come.” That’s exactly right. But that’s exactly how they should be doing
it. Ben: It’s not just a contract. I sense this thing is, I mean, as we tried
to show in the setup piece, I mean, it’s going beyond the contract as this whole new debate
about affirmative action, which has really been off the agenda for a long, long time
in any serious kind of way. You’ve got the Republican presidential candidates
talking about those kind of things. I mean, has the dialogue changed? I mean, for good or for real. I only mention that four times… Tom: Well, I think the dialogue has changed
to some extent. Affirmative action was not meant, in my judgment,
to involve quotas, or hard-line preferences that excluded others from opportunity. But that’s the impression that some are gaining
in the country, and consequently, a number of the state initiatives that will be on the
ballot dealing with affirmative action may be very troublesome. Ben: Suppose you were a voter in California
would you vote for that Cc RI civil rights, the anti affirmative action bill, the anti
quota bill, would you vote for that? Tom: Probably not. Ben: Probably not, because? Tom: Well, you know, I think that, again,
the principle is not a bad one that you ought to approach hiring and other issues without
regard to race, religion, or others. But there’s no doubt that this is also designed
to cripple or eliminate efforts in what I would call a true affirmative action sense
to encourage participation by what we regard as those who have not had the full opportunity. Chuck: I’d like to come at that by dealing
with the scary part of my original formula. Ben: Yeah. Chuck: The contract, I think, energized, it
did have something to do with the election for sure. And I’m sure not saying that it didn’t. It energized the Republican Party, particularly
in the house, and these 73 Republicans who’ve come are important, they see themselves as
important, and they believe that that election was about those issues in the contract, more
than that, and they support this speaker, and they’ve come to be the energy within the
House Republican Party. But more than that, if you say more broadly
that the contract was about the role of government, that we’re having a debate about what’s going
on in the last few decades in this country. If that’s been approved, if that was approved
by the election, I believe it was or at least interpreted in that way, then it doesn’t necessarily
stop with the list of 10 or the sub paragraphs. It says, if you get into welfare reform, you
don’t just stop with one proposal, you go as well to other characteristics of how people
are living and what’s the government’s role and relationships are. Isabel: Well, can I say something about the
energy because I don’t think there’s any doubt that the energy is there and the momentum
from the election, but I think the question we really need to ask is, where is this energy
gonna take the country? You know, are the contents of the policies
that are being proposed sensible? I mean, I’m reminded of the early days of
the Reagan administration where in the very first year there were enormous legislative
victories. And everyone said, there’s all this new energy,
there’s this new debate about the role of government, and there were lots of legislative
successes. But, with sort of 10 years or more of history
now to look at this, it seems to me it didn’t necessarily take the country in such a good
direction. You know, we quadrupled the national debt. Vin: Reserving the right to object. Isabel: Well, yes, but… Ben: Mr. Speaker. Isabel: We, you know, we quadrupled the national
debt because we reduced taxes, we increase defense spending, and we did nothing about
entitlements. And the result was, you know, red ink as far
as you could see, and some of the cutbacks in government programs, of which there were
far less by the way than people expected and then were promised. Tom: I feel compelled to point out, we also
had the longest period of economic growth in American peacetime history, and we won
the Cold War. Isabel: Well, that was after very… Tom: No small accomplishments. Isabel: …very deep recession in the early
’80s, which you had, of course, a good recovery. I think there’s some good things about the
Reagan years, inflation was brought under control and so forth. But I certainly don’t think any of us should
celebrate this enormous build up in debt. And there’s a real risk that coming out of
the contract and related proposals that are being discussed seriously now that you’re
going to have a repeat fiscal irresponsibility, no real effort to take control of entitlements,
which is what was really causing government to grow and really causing the deficit to
balloon. Ben: Vin, you’re gonna jump out of your seat
if we don’t get to your right. Vin: I agree that the hard work is yet to
come. I simply have detected, on the part of John
Kasich, chairman of the budget committee, Bob Livingston, the chairman of the appropriations
committee, and others, a determination to do more on the spending side than we ever
did in the Reagan years or for a long, long time and you ought to at least say, let’s
wait and see. Now, if we look back at the end of this year,
and you find that the numbers don’t add up, you’ll probably be justified making that criticism,
but I wouldn’t assume that yet. They’re ready to do some fairly historic things
it seems to me. Tom: Can I just go back to Chuck’s point,
and it’s made me quarrelsome a little bit. I agree that I think the psychology of the
contract has impacted the new Republican majority, particularly its new members. But the fact of the matter I think remains,
because it’s a mythology about these mandates, that most of the public didn’t even know about
the contract, much less walk into the polling booth with it. And it’s not particularly proud for me to
say that it was a rejection of Democrats, I think, rather than a selection of Republicans
which had more to do with the election results. Now, after the election, it is a fact that
many of these new Republican members think or have convinced themselves that the contract,
which none of them sort of reluctantly, reluctantly argued for during the election campaign has
now been the Vox Populi, the voice of the people. And they’re charged with a moral… Ben: Would you accept the point that was made,
I guess, by Chuck or Vin, that this election was really a referendum on the last 20, 30
years of what has been going on about government in this country? And that people were… Tom: To a degree, to a degree. I mean, I think it’s a number of things. There is no simple formula here. But my interpretation of the last year, particularly
the last Congress was that, and obviously this is a biased view, that many times the
Republicans blocked action only to complain about gridlock. And we had situations where we were blamed
as a Democratic Congress for not getting things through both houses. Actually, the House passed almost all the
President’s initiatives virtually intact. It was the senate where the filibuster killed
most of these initiatives. And the press reaction was we didn’t pass
it through the Senate. Now the house is getting great credit for
acting alone from the press, even though the Senate has yet to be heard from on most of
the issues involving the contract, and whether, as Bill says, there’s probably gonna be some
trouble later on. It’s an interesting, I… Ben: Didn’t John Kennedy say life is unfair? Tom: Life is unfair. Ben: Bel, let me ask you this question. What do you think specifically of that house
welfare bill that would cut off AFTC payments to unmarried women under 18? Would you buy that? Isabel: I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think everybody is concerned about the epidemic
of teenage pregnancies, and we need to do something about that. And we need to send strong messages that you
shouldn’t have a child until you’re ready to care for it. But I think that you don’t want to harm the
babies of these young mothers in the process. So I think a better alternative is to require
that those teenagers live at home, and that they stay in school, not that you cut their
children off of welfare entirely. Ben: But they continue to get welfare money? Isabel: They would continue to get assistance. Ben: Vin, you buy that? Vin: No, I think it’s a difficult issue. The fact is, at least in my judgment, we really
don’t know what will work in terms of welfare. And I think people that suggest they do are
kidding themselves or somebody else. But I do think that the current system is
a failure. I think that we all ought to be concerned
about the exploding illegitimacy rate both the black and the white communities. That’s probably what’s driving the welfare
debate more than any other single phenomena. And can I say with great confidence that cutting
off benefits to unwed mothers is gonna end that illegitimacy problem? I can’t. I can say that if you continue going down
the path we’re going, we’re facing a social catastrophe and it’s worth shock therapy to
try to stop that system. Chuck: Can I just join in. I think Vin is exactly right about this, and
where we need particularly to work on sort of bipartisan solutions probably on every
problem, but certainly on this one, I detect a little too much tendency on, perhaps on
both sides to fight over the crime bill, who’s tougher, who’s smarter, and so forth. And there’s a little part of some jockeying
around. You’re right about that, though. On welfare reform, we really don’t know much
except that the present system has serious defects, how we’re going to treat those without
doing great social injustice, or without creating more problems of a different nature. We’re not quite sure about. Ben: Would you buy this? If you were a member of congress and have
to vote on it. Chuck: I would probably buy the idea, or I
would think about the idea of limiting welfare benefits for other additional children. I mean, to encourage… Ben: What about for…? Chuck: For the first child, I don’t know,
I mean, you have a, this is a real world problem here. If you’re gonna say to that mother, “No assistance.” You know, what is she gonna do with the child? I mean, you then have…she’s not living at
home, she doesn’t have a job… Ben: Yeah, but the argument is, to use Bel’s
word is that this would send…you would do it prospectively, and this would send the
message to younger sisters today and say, don’t do it because it doesn’t make any sense. And there will be no financial support. And it would reduce the prospect of rate of
out-of-wedlock births. That’s the argument. Chuck: I think there’s more to out-of-wedlock
births than a desire on the part of these mothers to get welfare agreements. I mean, maybe this encourages… Ben: It’s a very complex phenomenon. Chuck: … or supports that where you can
make that argument. But I think the simple notion that people
go out and have babies in order to get welfare has been carried a bit far in this process. So the idea of cutting it off will solve the
problem is not clear, and it’s certainly not… Vin: What will the President sign and what
will he veto in a welfare bill? Isabel: I don’t think anybody knows the answer
to that question. I think he’s… Vin: Shouldn’t he be getting some clues? Isabel: Well, I think he’s very concerned
about the issues we’ve been discussing. But I think he would also say that what welfare
reform is all about is work. It’s asking people who receive assistance
from the government to do something in return. What the public doesn’t like, and poll after
poll shows this, is the idea that they’re working, they’re paying taxes, many of them
are struggling, many of them are not that far above the poverty line, and they resent
that there’s someone else who gets to stay home at taxpayer expense. So I think if you have some strong work requirements,
that’s the key thing that we need to do, and I think that’s what we think it’s best or
that will be well… Vin: I think just as a political observation
to answer your question, and Tom, I’d be interested in your thoughts on this. I don’t think this president can veto welfare
reform bill without paying a very heavy political price. He can fight to change it, he can argue about
it. But if the Congress delivers him a significant
welfare reform bill, having run as a candidate pledging to reform welfare, making that sort
of a centerpiece new Democrat issue, I think that he would veto at a tremendous political
peril. Tom: The vetoed bill might be, from a political
standpoint, the absolutely best thing for the Republicans to have happen. They present a welfare bill, it’s vetoed. They don’t override the veto, and then they
claim that they would have had the answer to all the welfare problems if the President
had only not vetoed it. And what do you do to solve that problem? You’ve get a republican president who can. Ben: Isn’t that just what the public is hating? I mean, that everybody’s playing games and
everybody’s pocketing [inaudible 00:22:21] Yeah, go ahead. Chuck: Let me, this is a good illustration
seems to me the thing that worries me most about the contract, it’s not the list itself,
the agenda, which I think is an interesting and good agenda, especially blended with what
the President had said originally two years ago, what was his agenda, those are the right
matters we’re working on. It’s that hundred days, that somehow taking
up all of this in that time, we’re opening up so many basic issues in this period, and
if it’s done too quickly, it invites exactly that back and forth, the credit claiming and
so forth, without truly engaging these, what are really monumental issues about the role
of government in relationship to people. Tom: I hate hundred-day things. I hate it when Presidents do it, because of
this exact problem. Ben: Let me ask this question. David Broder had a column in the Washington
Post recently where he went back to other Congresses that really changed the dynamic
of thinking in America and yielded a great legislative harvest, again, for good or for
ill. And that was 1933 with Franklin Roosevelt
and the Great Depression and 1965 with President Johnson and the Great Society legislation. Is this, for good or for ill, such a moment
that 50 years from now, 100 years from now, people are gonna say, “Boy, the 104th Congress,
they really changed things,” for good or for ill. But as Chuck has pointed out, a vast new way
of thinking. Tom: I think if that’s the case we won’t know
for a while for sure. And I think that the issue that you need to
focus on to determine what it was the voters were really saying is not so much the contract
as important as that has become since the election, but what happened to healthcare
in the last Congress. That seems to me to be sort of an historic
shift. The president in the campaign identified a
real problem. Healthcare is a problem in this country. He tried to deal with it in a fairly traditional
democrat way. Maybe you can argue that it could have been
done differently, but the country rejected it basically. And that’s really the first time that the
country has, in that way, rejected what should have been a positive popular middle class
initiative. And so the whole notion, in my view, of centralized
governmental problem solving is under question right now. And that seems to me to have driven the results
of the election as much as I think. Ben: Let’s just go around the horn here on
that question, and then, we’re about out of time. Chuck Jones, has it changed the terrain completely,
everything is different, for good or for ill? Chuck: As of right now, you’d have to say,
absolutely. The debate is over on certain things. For example, the debate now is changing welfare
as we know it, right? I mean, it isn’t shoring up, it isn’t continuing,
it isn’t incremental. It’s what do we do dramatically to change
it? The same with the budget, the deficit, engaging
those kinds of issues. So, it’s only a question of how it happens. I think, unquestionably, it’s a turning point. There is no precedent in this century for
this kind of arrangement politically either, this president faces the most difficult political
circumstance as a first-term Democrat. Ben: Bel Sawhill, the word watershed is used
very easily in this town. Is this a watershed for good or for ill? Isabel: Well, I think it has changed the terms
of debate as Chuck has just suggested, but I’m concerned about the issue you raised,
which is public trust in government. The Balanced Budget Amendment, I think is
just gonna lead to more public cynicism about government. Because it’s really saying, all we need to
do to balance the budget is to change the constitution of the United States. That’s neither necessary nor sufficient. It’s not necessary because we could balance
the budget now if we had the political will. And it’s not sufficient because once we’ve
done it, there’s no guarantee whatsoever that it will lead to the proper results. Ben: Tom Foley. Tom: Whether it’s a watershed or not, I think,
as Vin says, remains to be seen. But there’s a tendency, I’ll have to complain
about this a little bit, for this new Congress to co-op some of the things that happened
in the last Congress. I mean, it was, after all, President Clinton
who talked about ending welfare as we know it, and I think his election probably more
than anything else created momentum for the change in the welfare system. Secondly, the very tough decisions made in
the budget last year contributed dramatically I think, to the improvement of the economy,
the reduction of deficit in about half the terms in terms of gross national domestic
product than it was before. On some issues though, this Congress will
have to try very hard to put their best efforts forward with the president to solve some very
difficult problems that lie ahead. Tough dealing with the budget deficit, the
questions of spending, welfare reform. And if it does that, well, then the Congress
will indeed probably be a story. Ben: All right. Thank you. Vin Weber, Bel Sawhill, Chuck Jones, Speaker
Tom Foley. And thank you. Please send your questions and comments to
New River Media, 1150, 17th Street, Northwest, Washington, DC 20036. Or we can be reached via e-mail at [email protected] For “Think Tank,” I’m Ben Wattenberg. Announcer: This has been a production of BJW
incorporated in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its
content.

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