THE earth is rumbling under the feet of Democrats in Congress in these last weeks of the session. The defeat of Rep. Mike Synar (D) of Oklahoma and the poor showing of House Speaker Tom Foley (D) of Washington in primaries last week were but the latest tremors.
Legislative business, however, must go on. In the House, leaders have given up on health care legislation, says Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, the second-ranking member of the House. But they still must pass the annual spending bills that keep the government running, and he is hopeful that Congress can still pass major bills approving world trade rules, streamlining toxic waste cleanup, and a handful of other issues.
Ultimately, said Mr. Gephardt at a Monitor breakfast Friday, the only way out of the low political esteem wilting Congress ``is to improve the product'' - that is, improve the quality of the work the federal government does.
Before President Clinton's term is over, says Gephardt, ``very major'' health care legislation will be enacted.
But the health-care legislation that Congress debated this year was the most controversial and complicated business to hit Capitol Hill in the nearly two decades Gephardt has served there, he says. ``That makes it very hard to find a consensus.''
The bill was so big that the various interest groups that opposed various pieces of it formed a kind of ``critical mass'' of opposition, he says. The more than $100 million they spent on television ads to defeat the Clinton plan was successful in ``frightening people'' about it. That public wariness was picked up by Congress.
``Public opinion eventually has an awful lot to do with what happens in the capital,'' says Gephardt.
It did not help that Republicans adopted a ``no-bill'' strategy and obstructed progress, says Gephardt. Republicans can argue, of course, that they proposed several health-care bills that the Democrats never gave serious shrift.
The political trouble that many Democrats are in now is largely due to local, race-by-race factors, he says. But he acknowledges that some national factors, such as negative views of President Clinton, are at work too.
The current political climate is partly due to economic anxiety. While the economy is creating jobs at an improved pace, standards of living are not rising the way people might have thought they would. Plus a concerted effort by Republicans, led by President Reagan in the 1980s, has ``beat up on government.''
Further, all institutions are under attack in public opinion. Then, through negative campaign attacks between rival candidates for Congress, says Gephardt, ``we do some of it to ourselves.''