The 101st Congress to date is a libertarian's dream. While refusing a pay raise and handing the new president a historic defeat over a Cabinet nominee, it has gone slowly about the business of making law.
The tempo should quicken as the Bush administration finds surer footing, for each Congress settles into a unique rhythm fixed not only by internal mechanisms and issues but also by the personality and life cycle of the presidency.The 101st Congress has been driven thus far by a change in leadership on Capitol Hill, a friendly if fledgling takeover in the White House, a disputatious pay proposal, the bloody fight over John Tower's nomination as secretary of defense and the lack of accord on the budget.
Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas has said of this Congress: "All we've done is kill the pay raise and John Tower."
While activists chafe, advocates of the Jeffersonian ideal - to govern best, govern least - might consider the 101st Congress safely on track. It lags contemporary Congresses in several key measures of output: days met, bills passed, measures reported by committee.
Congress convened Jan. 3 and the pay issue largely occupied the attention of lawmakers through Feb. 7, the day it died. The leadership largely avoided other floor action until the matter was settled.
By March 31, the Senate had held 27 days of sessions, compared with 47 days through the same period of 1977, when President Jimmy Carter took office; 39 days in 1981, when President Ronald Reagan began his first term; and 39 days in 1987, when Reagan was weakest and a Democratic majority was returned to both chambers.
During this same period, the Senate passed 84 measures, compared with 130 in 1987, 91 in 1981 and 109 in 1977. A deeper, and perhaps more telling, look into the legislative process shows that committees have been producing less. Only 46 measures had been reported from Senate committees, compared with 72 in 1987, 62 in 1981 and 71 in 1977.
The record is similar in the House, where the ethics problems of Speaker Jim Wright of Texas and a recent change in minority whips haven't swept the legislative process forward. The House through March 31 had met 30 days, compared with 41 in 1987, 43 in 1981 and 46 in 1977. During the last three administrations it met less only once, in 1985, and then, as this year, it started the session preoccupied with an internal matter. Then it was a bitter partisan fight over whom to seat from the 8th District of Indiana.
Similarly, the House has passed 67 bills and resolutions, compared with 91 in 1987, 44 in 1981 and 151 in 1977. Its committees have reported 15 measures, compared with 33 in 1987, 13 in 1981 and 133 in 1977.
The 100th Congress cleaned out a backlogged agenda. It started by overriding vetoes of legislation to clean up water pollution and build highways and went on to overhaul the welfare system, expand Medicare and rewrite trade law. The Democrats don't lack an agenda for the 101st Congress, but for now they seem content to display a certain amount of deference to the Republican president.
"We're chomping at the bit. But there isn't the legislation there to pursue," House Majority Whip Tony Coelho, D-Calif., said before the Easter recess. "With a brand-new president it's going to take you several months to get rolling."
Congress hasn't always been content to wait, as evidenced by House-passed legislation to raise the minimum wage. The administration's proposal, and a threat to veto any alternative, arrived only 15 minutes before a March 9 markup in subcommittee.
In addressing criticism that his administration is off to a slow start, President Bush in a March 7 news conference cited his proposals for the troubled savings and loan industry.
"A lot is happening, not all of it good, but a lot is happening," Bush said. Two days later, the Tower nomination was defeated.
Budget negotiations remain the biggest barrier. "Nobody wants to be first on the one thing they know they have to do early, and that's the budget," said Christopher J. Deering, a George Washington University political scientist.
Many administration officials are not in place, which acts as a brake. Before authorizing new programs, even Democratic ones, Congress likes to hear from those who would administer them. For Bush, making sure his troops are heard on the Hill soon is essential; unable to roll over Congress, he must negotiate his successes.
Paul C. Light, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota, writes of a president and his legislative agenda: "Presidents must move it or lose it. There is no advantage to waiting."