NINETEEN-NINETY-FIVE was a wild and inconclusive year for the United States Congress. Republican legislators, in control of Capitol Hill for the first time in a generation, saw few of their initiatives become law - and at year's end, their most important work, a seven-year plan to balance the budget, remained stalled by partisan war with the White House. But despite its statistical lack of accomplishment, the 104th Congress seems a turning point in American political debate. In Washington, the question is no longer whether to end deficits, but how; not whether government should be reduced, but by how much.
Since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, if not earlier, the US has been changing haltingly from a society that views the federal government as a solver of problems to one that sees Washington as a weight on its back. This change has now affected both major parties. Democrats may regain control of the House and Senate in 1996. But even if they do, the days of LBJ's Great Society - or even President Clinton's health-care plan - will not shortly return.
"Wherever history is headed, it is no longer headed left," claims political expert Michael Barone in the current issue of The New Democrat, a magazine for party moderates.
Still, House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and his fellow revolutionary GOP representatives may have hoped for more when they took office last January. In a first 100 days of strenuous activity, House members passed nine of the 10 items on the Republican Contract With America, with only a constitutional amendment limiting the terms of members of Congress falling short.
Yet the much-publicized Contract has had little actual impact on American life - so far. Mr. Clinton has signed into law only three small Contract-inspired bills: a measure that makes Congress subject to the same labor laws private employers face; a bill intended to cut federal paperwork; and a bill meant to end the practice of imposing federal mandates on states without providing the money needed to carry them out.
Some Contract-derived items perished in the more-moderate Senate. An amendment to the Constitution that would have required a balanced budget passed the House, for example, but went down to defeat in the Senate by one vote.
Others, such as a proposed line-item veto for the president, have passed both legislative chambers but remain mired in that mysterious neverland known as a House-Senate conference. Still others, such as a reduction in capital-gains tax, have fallen prey in one way or another to the president's veto pen.
The Republican-led Congress has hammered out some difficult legislation, including a telecommunications bill now teetering on the verge of final passage. But as December wanes it has become increasingly clear that judgment of the new GOP majority rests crucially on its ability to get a balanced-budget agreement past the White House. That's a big reason why House Republican freshmen, in particular, have been so adamant in pushing red-ink elimination. They feel it's the measure of their year.
"Keeping focus on the goal of a balanced budget has been primary in all of our minds," insists freshmen Rep. Bill Martini (R) of New Jersey.
As of this writing, the particulars of the Congress-White House budget battle remained unsettled. But in a larger sense, the GOP may have already won much of the substance of the struggle, as it is taking place largely on Republican terms.
When he was president-elect, Clinton claimed the federal budget couldn't be balanced, absent greater economic growth. Now he's debating how to eliminate the deficit in coming years, not whether it's possible.
Clinton has even proposed tax cuts as part of his budget-reduction package - a position that's anathema to many of the president's own party in Congress.
Clinton popularity rises
By positioning himself as the defender of Medicare and Medicaid from GOP "extremists," Clinton has seen his popularity rise as the result of the budget standoff. He's benefited from a growing perception in the country, as measured by opinion polls, that the Republican budget reductions may be going too far.
But this tactical victory must be seen in the larger context of the nation's decades-long lurch toward the political right, or perhaps more specifically toward the view that Washington should have less power.
Forty years ago, polls found that three-quarters of Americans thought they could generally trust their government; the figure today is less than one-quarter, and falling.
That makes the Democrat's traditional big-government platform outmoded. Clinton himself won election as a moderate New Democrat, and ran into political trouble when his homosexuals-in-the-military policy and health-care plan began to make him look like a traditional liberal.
The GOP congressional agenda may well go too far for many Americans. If nothing else, it's clear that the astringent Speaker Gingrich has become one of the least-liked politicians in the country. But in pulling Clinton toward the right, GOP revolutionaries may well have pulled the governance that emerges from Washington toward the American center.