WASHINGTON — EVEN before Congress has formally adjourned for the year, the session-end spin is in full gear. And the name of the game is hyperbole.
In a Monitor breakfast with reporters Wednesday, House Speaker Tom Foley (D) of Washington started with a nod to Mark Twain. ``Somebody said about Wagner's music that it was better than it sounds,'' the speaker said. ``I think we had a better year than it appeared, at least during much of the year. This is by any assessment an extraordinarily successful first session of Congress, and an extraordinarily successful first year for a new president.''
In terms of the amount and importance of legislation passed, Mr. Foley opined that Bill Clinton may have even surpassed any year in the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, who was legendary for his ability to muscle bills through Congress, and that Mr. Clinton at least rivaled Dwight Eisenhower. (The '94 agenda, Page 2.)
``That was not what most people's impression was during the year. If anything, the stories were about alleged gridlock returning, and the president being rejected and rebuffed and so forth. Now the true picture emerges that this has been a very successful year indeed.''
Republicans have called such comparisons to President Johnson ``a joke.''
In terms of degree of difficulty, nothing could top Clinton's victory on the North American Free Trade Agreement, which passed with more Republican votes (134) than Democratic (100). Foley had suggested to the administration that it postpone the NAFTA vote in the House until after the president's Asia-Pacific economic summit in Seattle, so as not to embarrass the president at an important multinational gathering on trade.
But Clinton clicked into high gear and got the job done. Foley expressed admiration and awe for the president's ``warp-speed engagement'' to save NAFTA, but added, ``I think the president has to go back to more-normal engagement.''
``I give tremendous credit to the president for what he did on NAFTA,'' he said. ``Without his efforts, NAFTA would not (have made it). He was indispensable to its success....
``But, as they say, having said that, it required so much personal effort. There were hundreds and hundreds of hours of his time - lunches, dinners, telephone conversations, jogging....''
Other highlights of the legislative year include:
* Deficit-reduction bill. The passage of this legislation, which the Congressional Budget Office now says will reduce the deficit by $433 billion over five years (and not the approximately $500 billion the administration claimed), was noteworthy because it squeaked through by one vote, with no GOP support.
* Family-leave act. This was a holdover from the Bush years, when Congress would pass it and the president would veto it. The act requires employers of more than 50 people to grant 12 weeks of unpaid leave to employees with newborns or sick family members who need care.
* `Motor-voter' legislation. This allows people to register to vote by mail or when they apply for a driver's license.
* National service. Clinton's program would give students up to $9,450 per year toward higher education in exchange for community service.
Congress also recently extended payments to workers whose regular unemployment benefits have expired, but Foley says he expects that will be the last extension. Next year he expects legislation to provide for worker retraining, which would be a more permanent solution to the problems of the chronically unemployed.
At time of writing, the so-called Brady bill - which would require a five-day wait for the purchase of a handgun - hung in limbo as Republicans filibustered over the bill's ``sunset'' provision. Some Western Republicans are objecting to the House-Senate conference report, which called for the waiting period to be phased out after five years instead of four.