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Leaders of Congress Seek Followers, Amid Panic on the Hill : Government: The budget debacle exposes legislative disarray, with members more inclined to follow constituents than party.

October 14, 1990|Richard E. Cohen | Richard E. Cohen is congressional correspondent for the National Journal

WASHINGTON — Is anyone minding the store in Washington? In the wake of budget gamesmanship, much of the nation has been wondering who's in charge. Although the chief focus has been on President Bush's erratic behavior, the leaders of Congress also deserve much of the blame for the deadlock and the crisis of confidence.

The continuing saga of efforts to cut the federal deficit took new, bizarre twists last week. Bush and Congress decided to reopen the federal government after a weekend shutdown, but they left open the prospect of another crisis next week if agreement has not been reached on a new budget. Then the President seemed to change his views on major tax issues every few hours. House and Senate Democrats disagreed internally about what to do, as did Republicans.

All this comes less than a month before state and congressional elections, which will have a lot to say about the nation's direction during the 1990s. If the faltering national economy were not such a serious problem, the Washington follies might seem amusing.

As several recent public-opinion polls have shown, the budget follies have exacerbated the anti-Washington mood that has been sweeping the nation. Bush, of course, is not on the ballot Nov. 6. Instead, members of the Democratic-controlled Congress may be most at risk in this year's election. That helps to explain the sense of panic pervading Capitol Hill. Campaign insiders have been nervously counting down the days, worrying what new calamity awaits incumbents.

Despite some improvising to blur their actions, Democratic leaders could not escape the fact that they had publicly endorsed, amid effusive self-congratulation, the now-maligned budget deal at a White House Rose Garden ceremony barely two weeks ago. Their handshake with Bush and Republican congressional leaders followed more than four months of closed-door negotiations between the leaders--including House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.)--and top White House officials.

Those talks had become necessary because Congress could not muster the votes to pass a budget on its own. The once-routine process of drafting spending and tax measures in committees and sending them to the full House and Senate, in effect, had collapsed. But rank-and-file lawmakers, who had been barred from the subsequent "summit" negotiations, initially revolted with a primal scream that they could not be taken for granted.

Congressional barons hope that they can put the pieces back together and complete a budget acceptable to Bush in the next few days. Whatever the outcome, however, the budget conflict has exposed the difficulties and frustrations facing congressional leaders in an era of chaotic internal procedures and often-independent members who are more inclined to follow their constituents than their party.

The leaders, who are elected by each party's caucus, represent the best that the institution offers. In leading their rambunctious flock, they face a difficult time under any circumstance. Those woes have been compounded by disputes among national Democrats over their direction and their dismal performance in recent presidential elections. The new Democratic team also encountered difficulties because of the way each of them was elevated to his post in 1989. In a sense, they are still feeling their way.

Foley took charge under particularly inauspicious circumstances--the resignation, under fire, of Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), following charges of ethical misconduct. After a quarter-century in the House, Foley is well-attuned to its legislative demands and its mood but he has generally eschewed partisan wars. Gephardt, his new partner, had little formal leadership experience but his years as a prominent idea-merchant in the House and his 1988 presidential campaign prepared him for the political demands. Mitchell, a former federal prosecutor and judge, had the least congressional experience of the three but has shown a shrewd political instinct and a willingness to define differences with Bush.

During the budget summit, the Democrats set several goals and achieved some success. They forced Bush to renounce his "no new taxes" pledge and spotlighted GOP tactical splits. They also began to develop the "tax fairness" theme as part of the emerging Democratic position that Republican rule in the 1980s had widened the gap between rich and poor. But the Democratic leaders found themselves faced with the dilemma that has increasingly plagued Washington's "divided government": At some point, Congress must govern--and in these perilous times, those choices are often painful.

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