When the 104th Congress convened last January, it was the greatest political show on earth. The hottest ticket in town. Fantasy Island for press secretaries. But today, as the 104th limps toward the August recess, it seems more like a fifth-grade musical: Nobody's watching who doesn't have to.
True, the Republican-led Congress gave us sweeping reforms of agriculture and telecommunications policy and a line-item veto. There's even a chance that popular immigration, health-insurance, and minimum-wage bills could see presidential ink.
But GOP leaders have abandoned larger goals like tax cuts, Medicare reforms, and a balanced budget, and Democrats have succeeded in making gridlock the mot du jour.
Looking ahead to Congress's October finale, analysts draw three conclusions. First, the show's largely over. Second, the total amount of legislation enacted will be small. And third, despite the first two points, the 104th might still be historic.
"By traditional standards, this was not a good Congress," says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. "But it could prove to be a moment when we started to retrench, to devolve power to the states, to demonstrate concern about the size of the budget, and think about what programs can and should be eliminated."
The lasting legacy of the 104th, he says, "depends in part on what the next Congress does."
In weeks to come, GOP leaders will focus on a small group of showcase bills. Some are election-year stunts calculated to attract presidential vetoes if they pass. Others will be serious attempts to bring something home to voters.
Although campaign finance reform effectively died in the Senate this month, the House will consider a bill this week that would limit PAC contributions and require candidates to raise at least half of their campaign funds from individuals living in their districts.
GOP leaders have also decided to decouple plans to rewrite federal welfare and Medicaid programs, a move that makes welfare reform more likely.
A bill to tighten federal standards on the cleanliness of drinking water has a fighting chance, and both parties are working to solve a dispute over tax-free medical savings accounts. This squabble has hijacked a bipartisan health-insurance bill that would protect workers when they lose or change jobs.
Republicans also plan to move on bills to reform public housing programs, crack down on juvenile criminals, create a tax credit for families that adopt children, and ease regulations on banks, thrifts, and securities firms.
Legislation to combat illegal immigration has been jeopardized by the GOP's refusal to drop a provision that would allow states to deny education to children of illegal immigrants. President Clinton has promised to veto the bill if this measure is included.
But many of these bills may be overtaken by the demands of routine business. Congress faces a serious backlog of judicial appointments and is behind in passing the 13 appropriations bills and three tax-and-entitlement "reconciliation" packages that make up the federal budget.
Republicans are divided over a plan to pass a "continuing resolution" that would keep the government funded at last year's levels if Congress cannot complete the work by the October deadline. Members are anxious to recess early so they can campaign, and few Republicans want to risk a new government shutdown.
Last week, two Nevada senators brought their chamber to a standstill by blocking consideration of a bill that would force Nevada to accept a bundle of nuclear waste. The gridlock caused Trent Lott, the new Senate majority leader, to plead with colleagues to stop monkeying with the system.
In early campaigning, Republicans say little has happened because Clinton has vetoed most of their agenda. Democrats maintain the Republican agenda is out of step with the public. Others say a GOP Congress and Democratic president make for innate divisiveness.
But Charles Jones, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, argues that other presidents showed it is possible to produce legislation in a divided government. The problem with the 104th, he says, is that neither side has enough of a popular mandate to push its agenda.
"Both sides are weak," Mr. Jones says. "Congressional Republicans came on strong, but they tripped over their own strategy. And just because President Clinton vetoes things, it doesn't make him strong." The only way Congress can move forward, he adds, "is when both sides have political resources and respect for each other."