The Washington Times

Hardly a day passes in Washington without someone’s remarking upon the disarray of the Republican congressional majority—in the House especially, but to a degree in the Senate as well. The latest incidents have turned on the difficulty of moving forward with appropriations bills and defense-spending authorization. Gun control has also been an issue of surprising political volatility in the wake of the school shootings in Colorado and Georgia.

There are three main reasons for this apparent disarray. In ascending order of importance, they are:

  • The aftermath of impeachment. Although Republicans have recently seen some polling from which they have taken heart, the traumatic task of seeing impeachment through notwithstanding substantial popular opposition took a toll on GOP nerves. In addition, Republicans on Capitol Hill by and large do not trust Mr. Clinton and do not respect his legitimacy as a leader. This is one of the main elements driving the GOP’s internal incoherence on Kosovo, for example.
  • The GOP leadership crisis. The surprise loss in November 1998 of GOP House seats led to the hasty departure of Newt Gingrich. His apparent successor, Bob Livingston, was consumed in the impeachment flames. So the speaker’s gavel arrived in the hand of Dennis Hastert, who has had to feel his way along in a job for which he can hardly be said to have spent much time preparing. In addition, there have been some rumblings of discontent in the Senate over the leadership of Trent Lott—not that some of the same misgivings don’t apply to Don Nickles, the No. 2.
  • The narrowness of the GOP House majority. It is a fact of life that any handful of GOP members can seriously disrupt the House’s legislative business. Moreover, for those bent on upsetting apple carts, it’s a far easier thing to organize a conspiracy of half a dozen than a conspiracy of, say, fifteen—approximately the requirement for serious disruption two Congresses ago.

These facts are all things of which the GOP leadership is aware. The task at hand is therefore to manage the competing disruptive elements. This has and probably will continue to lead to such things as the abrupt pulling of bills when deals that look done suddenly aren’t. It would be a far worse matter to lose control of the floor of the House over a particular piece of legislation.

The strategy for the leadership in this environment is: First, do no harm. Do what is necessary to get Congress’ essential work done, making compromises as necessary and be on the lookout for opportunities that may arise in which more ambitious action is possible (in the full awareness that the likelihood of running across such opportunities isn’t high). One problem with this strategy is that it assumes a certain steadiness to the political landscape. Throw in an element of political volatility and situations that seemed manageable suddenly are not. Each in its way, Littleton and Kosovo, has been an example of the unforeseeables leading to manageability crises in Congress. One can at least lay one’s best plans for the appropriations process, even with the knowledge that they may go awry in the implementation. Issues that burst suddenly on the scene offer no such opportunity for advance work, and in that context the disruptive forces in Congress are at their strongest.

Hard as it is for some conservative activists on the outside to stomach, it is difficult to imagine what another legislative strategy might be, given the givens. The consolation for them, and it is a substantial one, is that most of the legislative initiative in Congress consists of Republicans reaching toward Democrats to shore up GOP majorities. Conservatives would find it substantially less to their liking were Mr. Clinton to establish a “working majority” of virtually all Democrats and some Republicans, something he has been unwilling or unable to do so far.

Needless to say, the situation is hardly ripe for bold legislative achievement. A do-nothing Congress is something Democrats will surely run against. For Republicans, however, it’s actually something to aspire to. The battle for the next Congress is unlikely to be fought over the achievements of this one, good or bad. It will be about promises for the future against a backdrop of a hazy good-times present that invites public disengagement. Unless something blows up, in which case all bets are off.