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Congress '97: Happy trails or true grit?

National | Policy experts and advocates rate the accomplishments of the 1997 session of Congress

Issue: "School shooting," Dec. 13, 1997

Even by the labyrinthine logic of Washington, the House cloakroom serves a strange function. Far from a mere storehouse for coats, as the name would suggest, the cloakroom is actually information central for the latest political goings-on. Reporters who need up-to-the-minute information on legislative debates know to call the cloakroom to get the scoop. But anyone who called after 10:45 p.m. on Nov. 13 got a song instead of a scoop. Congress closed for business last month, and Republicans eager for the Thanksgiving recess left a final, ironic message on the cloakroom answering machine: a recording of the Roy Rogers classic, "Happy Trails." Many GOP leaders felt a sense of satisfaction as they rode off into the sunset. "We accomplished a lot of things we wanted to do," said Speaker Newt Gingrich in an end-of-session press conference. Slipping back into his role of professor, he awarded his colleagues an A for their work compared to past sessions. But many conservatives were angry. On education, for example, Republicans did not obtain school vouchers for poor children in the District of Columbia, or $2,000 educational IRAs that could be applied toward Christian or home education. Instead, they gave the Clinton Administration a whopping 12 percent increase in funding for the Education Department, which Republicans had once targeted for a shutdown. WORLD waited until passions had cooled somewhat to ask policy experts in a number of fields to rate the major shakeups and shortcomings of the ongoing "Republican Revolution." Here are the results. Abortion The 105th Congress, like its predecessor, voted to outlaw the grisly procedure known as partial-birth abortion but failed to achieve the two-thirds margin needed to override the president's certain veto. Though conservatives are uniformly in favor of the ban, they are divided over Congress' strategy in dealing with it. "There's some thought that what pro-lifers want is a ban on partial-birth abortion," says Kris Ardizzone, executive director of Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum. "In fact, that's the least of what we'd want out of a Republican-controlled Congress. Banning infanticide is really not something you get points for, other than points for being human. We'd have liked to see pro-life moved along a little more." Because of a lack of what she considers aggressive leadership on pro-life concerns, Ms. Ardizzone gave the Congress a grade of C. But her counterpart at the American Conservative Union, Donald Devine, calls the partial-birth ban "the overwhelming issue" for pro-lifers in Congress, and he awards them an A for their strong stand in opposition to a resolutely pro-abortion president. Paul Weyrich thinks the 105th Congress deserves a B for its efforts both in passing the ban on partial-birth abortions and for retaining the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding of abortions except when the mother's life is at stake. But even the Hyde Amendment, long considered the greatest achievement of pro-lifers in Congress, is not without its critics. Ms. Ardizzone points out that the 104th Congress changed the original wording of the amendment to allow funding of abortions in case of rape and incest. When congressional liberals tried to strike the amendment this year, pro-lifers fought only to retain the current language, not to restore the original scope of the law. Education When President Clinton used his State of the Union address last February to tout national testing of schoolchildren in reading and math, conservatives in Congress braced for a fight to retain local control of public education. "By a difficult process of arm twisting, the good guys finally prevailed for one year," said the Home School Legal Defense Association's Mike Farris of the compromise that allowed the president to continue developing the tests without implementing them until at least 1999. "Stopping something bad was the major accomplishment of the year, which pretty well sums up the kind of Congress we have." During the debate over national testing, Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) quietly introduced a bill that would have blown the curve on the conservatives' grading scale. The Gorton Amendment took almost the entire budget of the Department of Education and redirected it to the states in the form of block grants, essentially wiping out the entire federal education bureaucracy. Although the amendment passed the Senate, it was pronounced dead on arrival in a House-Senate conference committee. Without the Gorton Amendment, the budget for the Education Department ballooned to an unprecedented $32.5 billion-a figure that shows the pragmatism within the GOP, according to Mr. Farris. "Republicans are driven to match election results with Democrats," he complains. "They understand that Democrats who won did so by running on an education platform, so they're trying to out-Democrat the Democrats in terms of spending on education. That may bring short-term success, but in the long run it's harmful for both the party and the country." Overall, Mr. Farris gives the 105th Congress a D+ on educational issues, while Paul Weyrich, looking at exactly the same issues, is more generous. "I'd give them a B-," he says. "They did resist national testing, and they did attempt to block-grant much of the Education Department budget to the states." Taxes The biggest news coming out of the 105th Congress-the news that will probably earn it a place in history-was the huge tax and spending compromise passed amid promises to balance the federal budget early in the next century. But conservative observers, as usual, were left deeply divided by the news. "Republicans passed much of the tax cuts they targeted in the Contract With America," says Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, citing the $500-per-child tax credit and reductions in both inheritance and capital-gains taxes. "That was expensive," he admits, "because we had to deal with Clinton in terms of higher spending." Still, he gives the Congress a B+ for the budget deal and a straight A for its work on tax relief. Mr. Devine of the American Conservative Union is less impressed. "You have to admit that the tax cuts were pretty puny, especially since the tradeoff was more spending," he says. "The fact that we had to come up with increased spending in the short run has to be put down as a failure. I'd give this Congress a D on the budget." Even the $500-per-child tax credit, long at the top of the wish list of many pro-family organizations, was the kind of targeted tax credit favored by Mr. Clinton rather than the universal cut once touted by Republicans, according to Mr. Devine. The problem with such targeted cuts, says Kris Ardizzone, is that they allow the government to reward certain behaviors while punishing others. "We're looking for an across-the-board tax cut that doesn't get into any more social engineering with tax policy." Mr. Norquist, however, remains defiantly upbeat. "The people who whine about the spending deals made with Clinton are the same ones who were whining earlier because we didn't get a tax cut," he says. "I think the tax advantages were worth the trade-off in higher spending, especially since the official Republican position is that we're going to have a tax cut every year. Everything left out of this budget deal, all that stuff is okay [because] what tax cuts we didn't get this year, we'll get later; it's all negotiable. History is moving with us, so we can afford to leave some things on the table." Anyone who's ever taught school knows how hard it is to grade fairly, so perhaps it's no surprise that grades for the first session of the 105th Congress were all over the board. But members of that Congress stress that anyone who thinks grading is tough ought to try governing. "You work, hard, you do your homework, you ask questions, and then you cast your vote," says Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.). "You vote your conscience and try to do the right thing, but you know there's always going to be people mad at you." Especially among your friends, he might have added. Republicans are learning that the grading scale is entirely different now that they're in the majority. They used to win kudos merely for slowing what sometimes seemed to be an inexorable, inevitable decline of American culture and the growth of American government. Now they're expected to make progress. Roy Rogers and "Happy Trails"? Forget it. Conservative activists want some John Wayne and "True Grit."

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