Congress these days is largely out of sight. For Americans, that means out of mind. And for Congress, this is good.
For the first time in years, Congress’ public approval ratings are above 50 percent.
Yet, compared with the conservative firebrands who stormed into town in 1995 with a lengthy agenda to dismantle government, many members of Congress today seem content to bide their time.
In the House, for instance, GOP leaders have quietly passed the word to their rank and file that a few token votes will be taken on cutting-edge social issues - like abortion and flag-burning - to excite conservative activists. Votes also are planned on proposals to do away with the federal tax system and on popular spending legislation such as a multibillion dollar highway bill.
“But they are very, very cautious this year,” said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron’s Ray Bliss Institute. “Politicians in general are mystified as to where the country really is (on some issues), and that breeds caution. So they don’t want to rock the boat.”
And the less people hear from Congress, the higher Congress’ ratings soar. Last month, for instance, after months of congressional inactivity, a Gallup poll for CNN and USA Today placed the public’s approval of Congress at 57 percent.
“The fact is, when the economy is in the state it is, the public generally prefers no action because the perception is if Congress does anything, it will basically screw it up,” said Steve Lombardo, president of KRC Research and Consulting Inc., a New York polling firm whose research also found that public sentiment in favor of Congress is on the rise.
Except for the election year of 1996, there has been a drop-off in the number of bills enacted into law since the GOP seized control in 1995. That trend appears to be strengthening as this fall’s election approaches.
Between 1978 and 1994 - including the six years from ‘81 to ‘87 when the GOP controlled the Senate - an average of 281 laws were enacted each year. During the six years of Republican control in the Senate, 294 laws a year were enacted.
In 1995, legislative output dropped sharply. In that year, only 88 bills were enacted. Although the newly elected GOP majority in the House rammed through the major components of its “Contract with America,” most of that legislation was stymied in the Senate by a combination of Democratic filibusters and reluctant Republican moderates.
In 1996, the pace returned almost to normal as Congress passed 245 bills. But after the Democrats made gains in the ‘96 elections, caution again became the byword. Last year, production was down to 153 bills.
Obviously, the quality, complexity and divisiveness of some of the legislation would account for part of that decline. The fact that Congress is controlled by the GOP and the White House by a Democrat also has contributed its part. And the willingness of the Democratic minority to mount bill-stopping Senate filibusters on ideologically driven legislation plays a role.
The Republican leadership - House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi - also appears to have adopted a long-range strategy: Be patient, they are telling their troops, get re-elected, wait for a conservative president in the White House in 2001 and then work on deregulating business, lowering taxes and diminishing federal government.
But the reduction in lawmaking also reflects the legislative theology of social and economic conservatives. By passing fewer laws, they say, the reach and power of central government is contained.
As Rep. Joe Scarborough, R-Fla., one of those conservatives elected in 1994, said: “Most of us, while believing there’s still a lot more to be done (in scaling down the government), are very proud of those (lower) numbers. That’s why we came here, to stop the government from growing and stepping on people’s lives.”
Gingrich put it this way: “There’s a big difference between a ‘do no liberal thing’ Congress and a do-nothing Congress.”
Since convening in January, the only significant legislation passed by the Senate was a $214 billion bill to pay for new highways and mass transit - popular items back in the states. The only substantive bills to pass the House were measures to open up trade with sub-Saharan Africa and permit Puerto Ricans to vote on statehood.
“It’s terribly frustrating,” Scarborough said. “There are lots of things we’d like to do - some big tax cuts, big spending cuts. But the decision has been made (by leadership) to sit back and wait for the election. We’ve been encouraged to get back to our districts as much as possible and cultivate the people we hope will re-elect us.”
At Emory University in Atlanta, political scientist Merle Black said part of the Republicans’ reluctance to forge ahead with an aggressive agenda is rooted in policy disputes within the party itself.
“They aren’t as united as a party as they were, and on the issues they are united on, they think the country is not with them, so they’re hanging back,” he said.