As it nears the midpoint of its 100-day push to enact its “Contract With America,” the Republican-controlled House has achieved an unprecedented level of productivity, passing 16 separate pieces of legislation in only seven weeks.
Despite the impressive flurry, the long weeks and 14-hour days, however, it remains far from clear whether much of its work will ever become law. The Senate has signaled it will block, stall or reject many of the House Republicans’ most cherished priorities.
What is clear is this: The easiest and most broadly supported legislation is now behind them, and House Republicans face much more divisive issues in the 50 days ahead, much slower progress in turning those issues into legislation and the likelihood of flagging public support for their efforts.
The first 50 days, said Majority Leader Richard Armey, R-Texas, in an interview, “was the easy half … The passions get bigger as the legislation gets bigger.”
In a scant 46 days, the House has passed legislation that would dramatically overhaul its own rules of operation, adopted a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, and approved a half-dozen measures that would shift the emphasis of the nation’s criminal justice system from prevention to punishment. It has made the Congress subject to the same laws it passes for the rest of the country and voted to give the president a line-item veto.
During the same period, the Senate has maintained its accustomed stately pace, passing only two of the House bills approved so far - a measure that would force the federal government to pay for most of the programs it imposes on state and local governments, and the congressional accountability act, making Congress adhere to the laws of the land.
But if Congress’ new Republican majority has fallen short of its ambitious promises to cure what ails the government, GOP lawmakers have given voters temporary relief, at least, for a common American political affliction: distrust of Congress and disapproval of lawmakers. The House’s frenetic burst of productivity seems to have prompted a resurgence of confidence in the institution of Congress.
In a Gallup Poll conducted in early February, 38 percent of Americans surveyed said they approved of the way Congress is handling its job, while 53 percent disapproved. Still a low level of popular favor, that marked a substantial boost from the nadir of public confidence in Congress, reached in October 1994, when only 21 percent of those polled expressed approval for Congress and 73 percent said they disapproved of the job lawmakers were doing.
“This is real change, this is not politics as usual,” said Gingrich on Thursday as he touted the achievements of the House to date. “We are in fact very different.”
But, he added pointedly, “it is very hard work.”
And it is hard work that is certain to get harder, as House Republicans move from measures that enjoyed substantial Democratic support to issues that have sparked deep and bitter divisions between the parties and within Republican ranks as well. Long before the 104th Congress, many Democrats had joined Republicans in supporting a measure barring unfunded mandates, a balancedbudget amendment, a bill giving the president the line-item veto and some revisions to the crime bill. But both bipartisan support and Republican discipline are expected to fall away quickly when lawmakers take up divisive issues such as tax cuts, congressional term limits, welfare reform and legal reform.
The first signal of that growing contentiousness appeared just before the 50-day mark, when House Republicans split over a contract item that has long been a GOP icon: deploying a space-based anti-missile shield. Some 24 Republicans voted with Democrats to turn away a proposal to hasten the deployment of a missile defense system. During later debate on the same national security bill, many more Republicans broke ranks with their leaders to reject a proposal that would have limited the president’s latitude in committing troops to peacekeeping missions.
Already, Republican leaders have begun to acknowledge that tax cuts proposed by Republicans are facing increasing skepticism from GOP deficit-hawks in both the House and Senate, and have suggested they might have to scale back the proposals contained in the contract.
But while House Republicans appear willing to curb the most divisive aspects of their agenda to ensure victory in the House, they acknowledge that they are making no effort to tailor their legislation to assure passage through the Senate.