WASHINGTON — Disenchanted voters might have sent congressional titans packing last week but that hardly means they are sending an army of Mr. Smiths to Washington to replace them.
To be sure, the 104th Congress that convenes in January will feature the least experienced crop of national lawmakers in nearly 40 years. At least 86 first-term legislators will report for duty to the House, joining most of the 110 newcomers--a post-World War II record--elected two years ago.
But the overwhelming majority of the new arrivals, many of whom are Republicans, are not the kind of novice citizen-legislators portrayed by James Stewart in the Frank Capra classic "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." An analysis by The Times shows that more than three-quarters of legislators in the freshman class of '95 either have held public office recently or were political operatives who filled party jobs or previously ran for office--before being elected. The trend continues a pattern begun in 1992.
And unlike the little-known GOP challengers who ousted House Speaker Thomas S. Foley in Washington state and former House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski in Chicago, few newly elected legislators are giant-killers. A majority won election to open seats created by incumbents' decisions to retire or seek higher office, also repeating the 1992 pattern.
"Outsiders don't make it," said Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at UC San Diego who specializes in Congress. "The candidates who were able to take advantage of the anti-Washington and anti-Democratic sentiments were people who themselves were politically active and savvy and seized this as an opportunity to move into Congress."
One example was Republican Robert W. Ney, 40, a four-term state senator and teacher who won a race to succeed retiring Democratic Rep. Douglas Applegate in Ohio. Another was Republican Thomas M. Davis III, a lawyer who ousted one-term Democrat Leslie L. Byrne in a highly competitive northern Virginia seat. Davis, 45, chairs the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
Only 14 candidates who had not held or sought political or party offices were elected to the House in 1992 and 20 in 1994, even though more than 250 such aspirants ran in those years. Experienced candidates remain better able to build formidable political and financial support.
The cadre of incoming lawmakers faces an institutional challenge. Will the Republican-dominated newcomers be in the vanguard of sweeping internal change--as promised by the new House GOP leadership--comparable to that achieved by the 1974 post-Watergate influx? Or will they largely be co-opted by a system that offers myriad benefits to incumbents, an experience that some say befell the heavily Democratic freshman class of '92?
Jacobson said that many of this year's freshmen face a quandary: "You have a class of newcomers elected who are committed to an agenda for internal reform in Congress that probably works against their interests as members with any long-term perspective."
And he said that they must resolve another basic question: "Will they try to build up strong personal support in their districts by traveling home all the time and doing casework and trying to provide pork-barrel projects which they can claim credit for, which did not work for some of the Democrats who were defeated? Or will they seek to make policy in an ideologically based fashion rather than trying to cultivate support independent of their ideology?"
Even though voters elected mostly politically experienced newcomers, the past two cataclysmic campaigns have dramatically changed the face of Congress. In addition to shifting from Democratic to Republican majorities, both the House and Senate have significantly increased both the number of women and the number of minority lawmakers in the 1990s.
The female contingent in the House jumped from 28 before the 1992 election to 47 and is expected to be 49 next year. The tally in the Senate will have increased from two to eight. In the House, the black caucus has gone from 25 to 38 members and the Hispanic caucus from 10 to 18. The Senate added its only African American and Native American in 1992.
The anti-Democratic tide did not wash over black and Latino Democratic strongholds this year, largely because reapportionment created districts that were predominantly minority and Democratic, or made them even more so. At the same time, neighboring districts previously held by Democrats, which lost key pockets of black voters in 1992, fell to Republicans.
The two recent elections have yielded ammunition to bolster both the case for--and the case against--the increasingly successful national campaign to limit congressional terms. This is an integral part of the new GOP agenda.
No longer is Congress primarily the domain of aged political barons. A full 41% of the new House and nearly a quarter of the Senate will have served two years or fewer.