New Life for Congress

THE Congress that assembles next January will be a different body from the one that glumly closed shop this week.

The House of Representatives will have at least 91 new members. The openings spring from defeats in primaries, decisions to seek other offices, retirements and deaths, and redistricting. Another 100 or so representatives are engaged in hotly contested races to retain their seats. The cumulative result will be unprecedented turnover.

The Senate won't experience change on that scale, but four or five senators, at least, could be looking for new work. And the change in the House, by itself, could be enough to revamp the way Congress does business. There's already evidence that the newcomers may not honor tradition and will want to shake up such hallowed realms as committee chairmanships.

Speaker Tom Foley attempted to put the best face possible on the concluding session by calling the 102nd a "reform Congress." And the House, particularly, had little choice but to alter its practices following the bank and post-office scandals. Reform ought to move ahead in the next Congress.

But a corps of new, activist legislators could bring the greatest reform, erasing the image of directionless "gridlock." That image, along with the bank-overdraft scandal, has driven Congress's approval ratings to all-time lows.

The "tax bill" still pending in the Senate is typical of what could squeak through the gridlock. It started as a effort to do something for cities after the L.A. riots. It ended as a "Christmas tree" festooned with unrelated pet projects. President Bush will probably veto the bill. But parts of it - like the highly effective tax credit for low-income housing - should be quickly resurrected.

Congress's first override of a Bush veto this week said something about the president's waning political influence. But it was also a coda, of sorts, to a period of divided government when little worked. By contrast, Mr. Bush's first two years produced such models of compromise as the Clean Air Act and the 1990 budget agreement (now repudiated by the president).

Citizens, too, have a part in reviving responsible lawmaking. They should put aside any cynicism about Congress. Their votes on Nov. 3 will make a difference.

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