Cover Story

Fighting for inches

With a razor-thin majority in the House and a hostile chief executive on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, congressional Republicans had to be content this year with achieving only minor victories and avoiding major defeats. Look for more of the same in 2000.

Issue: "Mid-term, mid-field pileup," Dec. 11, 1999

When Jim DeMint sat down to Thanksgiving dinner, he gave thanks for material blessings, for his family, and for the freedom to send his four children to Christian schools and bring them up as he saw fit. And then, as a first-term congressman, Mr. DeMint got to add something most people don't: "I was thankful that I could participate in trying to protect that freedom to a small degree." Mostly, though, he was just thankful to be back home in upstate South Carolina. The last few weeks of the congressional session were punishing, with both parties scrambling to finish up the spending bills that would fund the federal government for another year. Tempers flared. Egos were bruised. Allies felt betrayed. In the end, Congress authorized President Clinton to spend $1.75 trillion next year-some $30 billion more than the limits set by the balanced budget agreement. For that, Mr. DeMint was only partially thankful. "We spent more than we should have," he acknowledges, "but if we can't recognize progress when it happens, then we're never going to be happy." He points out, for instance, that although President Clinton got his $1.3 billion to hire 100,000 more teachers, it came at a cost: "The truth is that half that money can be spent by local schools the way they see fit." Mr. DeMint says that such stipulations are the Republicans' way of "deprogramming the federal government. The only way we'll ever get a handle on spending is if we can convince people that dollars are better spent locally." Thanks to compromises like that one-and the anti-abortion language attached to the $926 million payment to the UN-Mr. DeMint voted in favor of the final budget bill. In a sign of just how fractious the debate had become, he was the only Republican member of South Carolina's congressional delegation to do so. It was that kind of year for most of the first session of the 106th Congress: no clear winners or losers, few major victories for conservatives, but fewer still demoralizing defeats. With only a handful of votes securing their majority, Republicans limped along with a modest agenda and a compulsion to compromise. Not that they were willing to say so: Majority Leader Dick Armey called the session "A year of magnificent accomplishments. We are able to do the big things and keep pace with this rapidly changing economy." Mr. DeMint's own analysis is more subdued. "The best thing is what hasn't happened," he says. "A lot of the greatest accomplishments were in what we stopped." Congress blocked gun control, despite the momentum the issue received following the Littleton shootings. Congress delayed costly prescription drug benefits for Medicare patients, and an increase in the minimum wage. Campaign finance reform-anathema to most pro-life groups-also failed to pass, despite intimidating polls showing broad public support. Still, the 106th Congress will return in January for its second session, and these issues are all but certain to come up again. In the meantime, Democrats say the GOP's role in blocking popular legislation will only help them next November, when they seek to pick up the half-dozen seats needed for a majority in the House. Given their tenuous hold on power, Republicans in the House believe they should get more credit for what little they were able to accomplish this year. The ban on international abortion funding, for instance, was the GOP's first-ever win over Mr. Clinton on the pro-life issue. The party also kept its moderates in line to pass an $800 billion tax cut despite threats and cajoling by the president. Though the bill ultimately suffered death by veto, Republicans hope their eventual presidential nominee will score political points on the issue. Among other wins claimed by Republicans: Ed-flex
This reform weakens the federal Education Department by granting all 50 states the right to spend education dollars as they see fit. States will have to abide by nondiscrimination laws and meet certain performance criteria, but beyond that they will be freed from the tyranny of federally mandated programs and priorities. Military spending
After years of declining military budgets, President Clinton had to swallow a $17.3 billion increase for the Pentagon this year. And, following the CIA's highly publicized gaffes in assessing the missile capabilities of Iraq and North Korea, Congress forced the president to accept deployment of an anti-ballistic missile system by 2005. Y2K
After businesses had to spend untold billions of dollars making themselves Y2K compliant, conservatives feared that billions more would be drained by liability lawsuits. So, in a massive battle of business interests vs. trial lawyers, Congress handed the lawyers a crushing defeat: It limited the punitive damages that could be collected in Y2K suits and moved such cases to the federal courts, which are typically less generous. With the trial lawyers weakened, broader tort-reform efforts are certain to follow. Bank reform
Thanks to Depression-era laws championed by FDR, banks, insurance companies, and securities firms have not been allowed to compete on each other's turf. Most free-market analysts saw such protectionist laws as harmful to consumers, so Congress finally cleared the way for greater competition in the financial services sector. Social Security
Above all else, however, Republicans say they are proud of keeping their promise to produce a budget without dipping into the Social Security trust fund. Right up to the end, the validity of that promise was in doubt. Mr. DeMint estimates that fully half of his Republican colleagues expected the leadership to cave in to White House pressure. Instead, they balanced the budget by pushing through an across-the-board spending cut, forcing agencies to trim approximately 38 cents of every $100 in their discretionary budgets. That saved more than $1 billion, while saving face for GOP leaders who'd staked their future on the so-called Social Security lockbox. "As a first-year person, it was encouraging for me to see us set a goal and keep it, even though it was very messy," Mr. DeMint says. "To have a balanced budget without spending Social Security is a far-reaching accomplishment that might never be appreciated. The fact that we've gone from the government being the largest borrower from the private sector to where we're actually putting money [some $124 billion] back into the private sector is a huge accomplishment." Still, the freshman congressman realizes that many voters may not share that sense of accomplishment. He hopes for bigger and better things next year-he's authored a bevy of value-oriented bills he'd love to see passed-but realizes that election-year politics will make bold initiatives unlikely. Perhaps, if everything goes just right, his party will have a stronger majority in the 107th Congress and a president in the Oval Office who will sign groundbreaking conservative initiatives, rather than vetoing them. In the meantime, with college football season behind them and the bowl games ahead, Mr. DeMint can only hope that conservative voters will appreciate the GOP's ball-control offense, and not emphasize the lack of a touchdown pass.

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