THE process of amending, reconciling, adopting, and passing a bill can be as exciting as boiled cabbage. But during the last 200 days and nights, the 104th Congress has launched a legislative barrage that, viewed in the context of recent history, is truly dramatic.
Led by the first Republican majority in 40 years, Congress has voted to reduce the size and scope of American government: shedding 209 programs, discarding regulations, ceding power to the states, and reforming itself.
While the ramifications of these votes are still imperceptible outside Washington, and few bills have been signed into law, the changes they could bring in the coming years would be as startling as thunder. Republicans call it a revolution. Democrats call it regression.
Here's what they have done:
*Congressional reform. Congress passed a slew of bills aimed at reforming the legislative branch. The House eliminated three committees and cut staff levels by one-third, and the president signed a bill that ends congressional exemptions for several workplace laws: including employee discrimination, worker safety, and family and medical leave.
While a term-limits measure died in the House, both chambers passed bills that would give the president a line-item veto: an act that would make it more difficult for members of Congress to win approval for pork-barrel projects.
In addition, the Senate voted to strengthen lobbying-disclosure laws and banned members and their staffs from accepting expensive meals and trips.
*Regulatory reform. Congress voted to limit the power of the federal government to impose regulations on businesses and local and state governments.
The House passed a bill that requires federal agencies to perform risk assessment and cost-benefit studies before implementing new regulations, and to compensate property owners who are financially impacted by them.
The president signed a bill eliminating so-called "unfunded mandates." This legislation prohibits the federal government from imposing expensive regulations on local or state governments without providing funding to offset the costs.
Also on the regulatory front, the House revised the Clean Water Act to ease antipollution requirements on industry and make it harder for government to declare wetlands off limits for development. A proposed revision of the Endangered Species Act would limit government's ability to add species to the list.
8Crime. In a revision of the 1994 crime bill, the House voted to transform funding now earmarked for new officers into block grants to state and local police. The bill would allow improperly obtained evidence to be admitted in some criminal cases, set aside more money for prison construction and deportation of criminal aliens, and limit the number of times death row inmates can appeal.
*Welfare. The House-approved plan would replace 44 welfare programs with five block grants to the states: eliminating federal programs that provide child care, job training, and school meals. The bill would cut extra benefits for mothers who have additional children while on welfare, and deny funds to legal immigrants. The Senate begins debate today.
*Legal reform. This provision, passed by both chambers, would limit the liability of manufacturers from lawsuits by consumers. The Senate version would cap awards in cases against small businesses at $250,000. The House bill would put more stringent caps on all forms of civil litigation, including malpractice and claims against drug companies.
*Taxes. A House bill would reduce income taxes by $189 billion over the next five years. It would repeal a 1993 tax increase on upper-income Social Security recipients, allow a per-child credit of $500 for families making up to $200,000 a year, ease tax burdens on married couples, and lower capital-gains taxes.
*Telecommunications. A bill passed in both houses would promote competition and remove some regulations from cable, telephone, and broadcast companies. The House version includes an amendment mandating the "V-chip" on televisions that can be used by parents to screen violent programs.
* National Security. Bills now in conference will cut aid to the United Nations, limit the president's ability to assign troops to UN missions, and encourage NATO admission for Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. Foreign aid programs and three State Department agencies would be cut.
* The Budget. Although the Senate killed a balanced-budget amendment, both houses passed a resolution that mandates a balanced budget by 2002.
Both houses agreed to spending targets that would cut Medicare by $270 billion, Medicaid $182 billion, and strip $175 billion from programs such as welfare. Defense would be the sole gainer, with an increase of $58 billion.
As the houses work out how to accomplish those targets, scores of programs are being cut. This year, Republicans have launched a new strategy: instead of holding hearings on programs they want to kill, they have reduced or eliminated their funding in annual spending bills.
So far, casualties include the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Labor Relations Board, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Department of Commerce, which will all see significant reductions in funding and influence. Other agencies facing cuts are the arts and humanities endowments, the office of the "drug czar", the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Federal Election Commission, the Legal Services Corporation, and the Economic Development Agency.
What survives? So far, Congress has chosen to preserve a number of controversial items, including tobacco subsidies, the space station, the Ryan White CARE program to provide funds for people diagnosed with AIDS, funds for family planning, and the Departments of Energy and Education.
While the GOP plan is ambitious by any standard, it is also running a bit late. As President Clinton threatens a number of vetoes, some analysts predict Congress will miss its Oct. 1 deadline for passing the budget - effectively shutting down the government. Regardless, lawmakers face a busy autumn.