Insight

“Its prospects in the Senate are uncertain, however.”

How many times do you suppose you’ve heard that phrase, or some variation, from one journalist or another since the House of Representatives started cranking out the legislation composing the Republican “Contract With America”? It has been ubiquitous and nearly universally applied to contract items, from the line-item veto to welfare reform to tort reform to regulatory reform to tax cuts.

I would go so far as to say that it has been the single most common analytical observation offered by the chin-stroking, thumb-sucking Washington weenie pundit class since the start of the Republican 104th Congress in January. These days, it is almost beginning to rival the greatest pomposity of all time: “One thing is certain: Only time will tell.”

Maybe this would be a good time to explore what people mean when they say, “Its prospects in the Senate are uncertain, however,” and what it means that people say it.

Let’s begin with the obvious: Just as, in fact, only time will tell, so, too, exactly what the Senate will do with the contract legislation is uncertain. It’s perfectly possible that Bob Dole and Phil Gramm will wake up tomorrow and announce that they have joined the Young People’s Socialist League and want to modify the contract tax bill accordingly: instead of a capital gains tax cut, maybe nationalize all industry; instead of a per-child tax credit, maybe adopt universal, mandatory day care; instead of raising the amount at which your estate can be valued and still be passed to your heirs tax-free, maybe outlaw inheritance altogether and confiscate property at death.

But probably not. And nobody really means to allow for such possibilities with the statement in question.

What they mean to suggest is that the Senate is a very different place from the House – more deliberative, slower, more centrist, less in the sway of popular passions. This is, of course, as the Founders intended: a large, lower chamber close to the people and frequently accountable to them; and a smaller, upper chamber at a greater remove from the people.

The analysis is mostly right. The Senate is different. I only have trouble with one little word in the preceding paragraph, the whole of which broadly reflects the conventional Washington wisdom as of Congress’ Easter recess, 1995. That’s the word centrist, and thereon hangs the tale.

The House is, I think undeniably, in a period of near-revolutionary ferment. It depends on how much basic change you require before you classify something as a revolution, I suppose. But the sudden overthrow of the orthodoxy that has governed Capitol Hill for 60 years – and more to the point, its replacement with a new ideology – strikes me as good enough. In the blink of an eye, we have gone from “government can do more” to “government tries to do far too much”; from “a national commitment to the arts” to “an end to taxpayer subsidies for affluent elites”; from “the rich must pay their fair share” to “it’s not the government’s money”; from “we must provide assistance to the least fortunate” to “we must stop programs that perpetuate a cycle of dependency.” And on and on.

This is big, big news. The contract legislation is entirely in accordance with the new ideas. And it has very few points of connection with the old ones. (One of those few, for example, is the provision that caps the $500-a-child tax credit at incomes of $200,000, instead of no cap at all.)

Now, if you are somebody who still believes, viscerally if not as a matter of thought-through ideological conviction, in the old ideas, you are apt to find this change unsettling. There are two reasons: First, you don’t like it; it literally goes against everything for which you stand. Second, chances are it all comes as a surprise to you. You weren’t, in all likelihood, paying attention to conservatives (who after all were out of power) during all the years they were talking about things such as tort reform and ending welfare for able-bodied adults. The contract seems like a hastily considered, underdebated headlong rush to you.

It’s precisely the people who are experiencing this shock-of-the-new disorientation who seem most attached to the mantra of the day: “Its prospects in the Senate are uncertain, however.” Simply put, the mantra is reassuring. Maybe everything hasn’t changed. Maybe there’s a place where cooler, more rational heads prevail – in other words, heads in which the thinking is more in tune with the thinking in your head.

Thus the Senate, the more deliberative body (just like the Constitution designed it) may save you from the incomprehensible wild men and women of the House.

At the moment, to be sure, the Senate is more “centrist” than the House. But I would caution against the conclusion that there is something about the body that makes this intrinsically so.

The composition of the House has the potential to change rapidly. Because of six-year terms, the Senate lags. But, I think, the same forces that rocked the House also are working on the Senate. If you look at the large new crop of GOP senators this year, you will find exactly one who can be cast in the “centrist” role – Olympia Snowe of Maine. The rest are conservative – every bit as conservative as mainstream Republican opinion in the House. This trend shows no sign of abating; eventually it will yield a Senate every bit as conservative as the House – and less susceptible to ouster because of the six-year cycle.

So what will the Senate do now? My guess is, a lot more than anyone earnestly intoning the mantra of the day expects. Something along these lines: The House passed a $180 billion tax cut over five years; maybe the Senate will do $120 billion. Take it to conference and split the difference at $150 billion. See if President Clinton signs it.

When the ink is dry, you’ve still got a revolution. And that’s what time is going to tell.