House Will Have New Faces, but Lack Mandate
Stalemate likely to continue if Bush wins, but Clinton also could be at odds with Congress
WASHINGTON — NEXT January, the 103rd Congress will convene the House that alienation built.
Two special traits will mark the House of Representatives produced by the November elections:
* The number of new faces in its ranks will easily surpass any other Congress since the New Deal. Americans hold little esteem for their Congress now, so they will get a largely new one.
Most estimates now put the freshman class at between 110 and 140, or between a fourth and a third of the 435-member House.
* Congressional elections will not establish any potential mandate for how the new House directs the nation's business.
The most common theme in campaigns for House seats is the promise not to abuse the privileges of office - an issue that has more to do with personal behavior than policy goals.
Such high turnover in Congress without significant tilt toward either party is unprecedented in modern times - as if the voters were sending a message both loud and ambiguous.
In the past two months, the conventional wisdom has scaled back the estimates for Republican gains in the House from 25 or more seats to between 10 and 15.
The current makeup of the House is 166 Republicans, 266 Democrats, one independent, and two vacant seats.
Already, 91 incumbents are guaranteed to be out of the running for the next Congress. Nineteen have been defeated in primaries, including such leading figures as Reps. Stephen Solarz (D) of New York and Guy Vander Jagt (R) of Michigan. Sixty-six are retiring from office. Two have died. Four incumbents will lose their jobs because redrawn congressional districts have pitted them against other incumbents.
The impact of the new Congress may differ, depending on who occupies the White House.
If President Bush is reelected, the general standoff between Congress and the White House is likely to continue. Even if the GOP gains a dozen or so seats in the House, it will still be vastly outnumbered. The Democrats, however, would be that much further from the two-thirds majority needed to overturn a Bush veto.
White House staff members have argued that Mr. Bush will be able to move his program through Congress better next year through a "boll weevil" strategy - an alliance between Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats such as the one that helped Ronald Reagan cut taxes in 1981.
A boll-weevil strategy would be harder to construct now, however. During President Reagan's first term, the GOP had about 25 more representatives than now. They needed to find only 30 to 35 like-minded Democrats, says Rebecca Tice, legislative director for Rep. Charles Stenholm (D) of Texas, a leading boll weevil. Now they need nearly twice that number of crossovers to overcome the Democratic advantage.
Southern Democrats also appear to be generally more liberal than they used to be. The boll weevils are voting with their own party leadership more often, according to studies of House voting patterns. Paul Rundquist, a scholar at the Congressional Research Service, notes that party unity on controversial votes has lately been at its highest levels since the Johnson administration.
Nevertheless, the boll weevils can still form majorities on some issues - especially budget questions. They helped protect the fire walls in the 1990 budget agreement that prevented savings in the defense budget from being spent elsewhere. They came within nine votes of passing a balanced-budget amendment this spring.
If Gov. Bill Clinton wins the election, experts see one of two scenarios.
The Democratic president could seize the initiative in his first 100 days by moving fast with a strong legislative program. The Democratic Congress, eager to show that the party can govern responsibly, would close ranks behind him.
Or Governor Clinton could meet the fate of the last Southern governor to be elected president, Jimmy Carter. Mr. Carter was often at odds with his own party in Congress.
David Brady, a political scientist and Congress expert at Stanford University, foresees a Carter scenario under Clinton. The new crop of members will be elected largely without mandates for national change but only for serving local interests, he says.
"They won't believe they got elected because of Clinton," he says. "They won't believe they got elected to cut entitlements," he adds, as an example of a significant national mandate.
On the other hand, many observers consider Clinton to be a more skilled politician than Carter.
"You would have a president who clearly, at the state level, has worked well with the state legislature," says Susan Webb Hammond, an American University political scientist who is writing a book on congressional caucuses.
Stephen Wayne, a Georgetown University political scientist, believes that no significant changes are likely. The two priorities in the new Congress, he guesses, will be parochial ones: to behave better than the previous Congress with their checking accounts and tabs at the House restaurant, and to serve their constituents.