December 23, 1997 | Commentary on Political Thought
Most Americans like the fact that Congress and the White House compromised on the budget. On the other hand, most pundits give the 1997 session of Congress only fair marks, arguing that the economic consequences of the budget deal are minor, and that Congress didn't do much else.
As usual, the public is right and the pundits are wrong.
It's true that Congress did not complete much major legislation, but the political cease fire permitted the emergence of a set of issues that may produce big changes in the future. Congress took tentative steps toward major reform on taxes, education, entitlements and racial preferences. Bipartisan agreement about the need for change, if not about its direction, guarantees that these issues will be revisited.
The most significant development in 1997 was the prominence of tax reform. Americans are fed up with the IRS. The most explosive hearings of the year were about IRS abuses, not campaign finance. As a result, President Clinton changed positions and embraced IRS reform. But the fight isn't over: Many Republicans want to scrap the entire tax code and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., has his own tax reform plan. We may still be a few years away from achieving fundamental reform, but bipartisan recognition of the need for action makes it highly likely.
Perhaps the second most prominent issue in Congress this year was education. Education votes were among the most numerous of the closing weeks of the session. Opposition to the Clinton administration's national testing plan was one of the few issues that united House Republicans sufficiently to make their narrow majority a firm one. Republicans decided not to try to shut down the Education Department, and instead pushed their own reform ideas, including vouchers for low-income parents to send their children to the schools they choose, and support for charter schools, which are run by parents or educators instead of the public school bureaucracy.
The real issue in education is not money, but control. The new congressional strategy is to send money directly to parents through vouchers, directly to charter schools, or directly to local school boards in the form of block grants. Each approach minimizes the power of education bureaucrats in Washington and the state capitals. This means a tough fight ahead, but one in which lawmakers no longer can be cast as being "against education."
Congress took small steps in 1997 to reform entitlement programs, imposing minor cost controls on Medicare, while appointing a panel to consider long-term changes. But even small steps are significant after years in which Social Security and Medicare were considered politically unmentionable. Congress held hearings about privatizing Social Security so future generations of elderly can be more secure without raising taxes. Without reform, these programs threaten to bankrupt America in the 21st Century. While we're still a long way from action, open discussion is taking place for the first time.
On two major issues, Congress' failure to act made news. The "fast track" battle was as closely and intensely fought as any in 1997. Unless the outcome changes in the new year, Bill Clinton will be the first president in recent history who has not had the authority to negotiate trade pacts with other nations that would be submitted to Congress for an up-or-down vote without being picked apart in the amendment process. This marks a major departure from the free-trade policies America has advocated for decades.
Despite a push by committee leaders, legislation reforming the government's affirmative action programs remained bottled up in the House Judiciary Committee. It is clear, however, that sooner or later Congress will address the issue. Though his ideas are different than the leading congressional proposals, the president seems to agree that changes are needed. Here again, bipartisan agreement that the status quo isn't working is the first step in the debate over how things should change.
All in all, a year of "getting along" with the White House hasn't produced big political dividends for Congress. But it may have produced an environment more conducive to serious change in the years ahead.
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Note: David M. Mason is former senior fellow in congressional studies at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.