WASHINGTON — VOTERS sent one clear signal this fall that virtually no one disputes: They want change in their government.
But as the incoming members of the House of Representatives gather this week to choose their leaders, vote on new rules, and dole out committee assignments, the new power structure in Congress looks strikingly similar to the old one.
The view on Capitol Hill, especially among Democrats, is that congressmen's chances of reelection in 1994 will not depend on strong gestures against the status quo and sweeping reforms of how Congress does business. What matters, these lawmakers believe, is whether government acts to open up jobs in the domestic economy and to improve the health-care system.
As a result, the House is set to renominate Rep. Thomas Foley (D) of Washington as Speaker, the most powerful position in Congress and the second most powerful in the federal government. The formal election is held Jan. 5 when the 103rd Congress is officially seated, but the real choice is made today in a vote among Democrats.
No challenges are afoot to any of the Democratic leaders, nor to House minority leader Robert Michel (R) of Illinois. Only two committee chairmen face active challenges in voting tomorrow, unless President-elect Clinton appoints some committee chairmen to Cabinet posts. Rep. William Natcher (D) of Kentucky is likely to replace ailing Rep. Jamie Whitten (D) of Mississippi as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. And Rep. Lane Evans (D) of Illinois has been rounding up support to oust Rep. G. V. "Sonny" Montgomery (D) of Mississippi as chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
The large new freshman class, it seems, is more interested in getting plum committee assignments than in sweeping the Capitol clean. "I can't expect to go back to the First District of Illinois and ask them to reelect me based on the fact that we kicked out a chairman," says Bobby Rush (D) of Illinois. Mr. Rush is a former Black Panther leader, Chicago city alderman, and now a representative-elect.
"Change is going to come on substantive issues," he says. With a Democratic president and Congress, Democrats no longer have any excuses not to break government gridlock and get things done on the economy and health care, he says.
"This Congress will be judged to a large extent by how different the world looks two years from now," says Rep.-elect Jerrold Nadler (D) of New York. After jobs and health care, he says, "other issues are frankly minor."
But a Republican campaign and polling firm, Public Opinion Strategies, found last week that 68 percent of Americans still disapprove of the job Congress is doing. Neil Newhouse, a partner in the firm, believes that voters want to see congressional reform, such as cutting salaries, staff, and franking privileges, "so that just like the rest of us, they have to tighten their belts."
The message of the election was "to change the way politics works in Washington," Mr. Newhouse says. Voters have too little confidence that congressional action will spur the economy to be impressed by such legislation. Reform of Congress itself has more impact, he says.
The new members are not a passive group. As the largest freshman class since 1948 - more than a quarter of the House - they know their clout. Last week, during their orientation sessions, they demanded audiences with each of the current committee chairmen. Most of them obliged.
The rookies also wanted to hear from proponents of competing versions of proposed Democratic-caucus rule changes that will be voted on tomorrow. The most significant rule change under consideration is one that would allow the House Speaker to declare committee chairmanships vacant. This proposal is intended to give the Speaker greater power to hold chairmen accountable.
"He's got to make the trains run on time," says Brookings Institution scholar Thomas Mann, who is promoting such reforms on Capitol Hill. "If there was a mandate [this election], it was to make government work." He finds the new Congress geared to what he views as constructive and substantive action, not symbolic gestures.
Republican members of Congress are more intent on reform than the Democrats, says a Republican aide on the Hill, but getting reform requires strong public pressure, and the moment for that is past, the aide believes.
The pressure would be far greater if the Democrats had lost more than 10 seats in the House or if Mr. Clinton had lost the election, says Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster and consultant. As it is, Clinton has become the focus for the "Democratic change movement."
But Mr. Garin also says that Congress is changing the way it does business, even as the leadership stays the same. "These new people are coming here with a different kind of consciousness" - they are more careful about spending money and less tolerant of acting out of political convenience, he asserts.
"The leadership has gone all over the country to say they've gotten the message," Garin says, citing the leaders' trips to meet the new members after the election. "It's the first time the mountain has gone to Muhammad."