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Weary House Republicans Set Breakneck Legislative Pace

March 26, 1995|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Bright lights glare down on the House of Representatives as lawmakers brawl their way toward passage of the first big budget-cutting bill to come up since Republicans seized control of Congress last fall. Smack in the middle of the din sits a senior Republican who, after spending 18 powerless years in the minority, has earned the right to savor this moment of triumph over a generation of Democratic spenders.

But forces more powerful than history have overtaken Rep. John T. Myers of Indiana. He is asleep.

Myers, who had worked until 10:30 the night before and been back in his office for a 7 a.m. meeting, is typical of the exhausted foot soldiers of the Republican revolution that has turned Capitol Hill on end.

After three months of forced marches through the GOP's ambitious legislative agenda, their battle flags are crowned with ribbons but their ranks have the ragged look of walking wounded.

Not since the heady first "Hundred Days" of Franklin D. Roosevelt's first term--when Congress rushed to approve prescriptions for ending the Depression--has Congress seen such a period of exhausting, helter-skelter legislative activity as has gripped the House.

Indeed, scholars say there are few precedents other than F.D.R.'s initial push in the 200-plus years of the Constitution. In the post-Civil War period, Congress worked at a fever pitch to engineer Reconstruction. And in the early days of World War II, Congress was in session year-round.

But those were cases of Congress reacting to national crises or social turmoil. What puts the present period in a class by itself is that it is occurring when the nation is, by any normal standard, fundamentally safe, prosperous and at peace.

"Congress doesn't act quickly--it's not designed to act quickly," said Donald Ritchie, associate historian of the Senate, "unless you have a sense of national emergency like war or depression."

For a period of barely 12 weeks, "the record of the House . . . is astounding," said David R. Mayhew, a professor of political science at Yale University.

Since convening after New Year's Day, lawmakers and their staffs--many accustomed to the leisurely pace of government in gridlock--have been roused from comfortable routines into long hours and a relentless pace by the House Republicans' 1994 campaign promise to put the entire "contract with America," their far-reaching conservative manifesto, to a vote within 100 days of taking power.

The result: Laws remaking major elements of American society, from welfare to criminal law to tax policy, are being written at a remarkable pace, but in near sweatshop conditions.

"People ask me how I like being in the majority," said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) "You know what I want more than anything else? A nap."

The working conditions may be taking a toll on the quality of the products coming off the legislative assembly line. "We're moving too fast," said Myers, a moderate Republican first elected in 1966. "We're not spending enough time examining what we're doing."

Such reservations are rare--or at least rarely expressed--among House Republicans, especially among the huge, eager class of freshmen who take the contract as gospel. They see keeping the 100-day commitment as crucial to their political survival, regardless of the outcome.

Indeed, many House Republicans are pressing ahead without regard for time-honored legislative niceties such as public hearings or extensive debate because they know their handiwork will not become law. They assume the Senate, where the flames of revolution burn less intensely, will slow the process and tend to the details.

But some analysts and lawmakers still fear that the headlong rush in the House risks saddling the public with ill-conceived laws whose consequences are far from certain. "We'll have to look back and see what it looks like two years from now," Myers said.

"Observing the legislative process in the House of Representatives is no longer like watching sausage being made," James A. Thurber, an expert on Congress at American University, said in a recent article in Roll Call, a Capitol Hill biweekly publication. "It is like watching Charlie Chaplin catch cream pies coming off a high-speed conveyor belt."

Before the Republicans took charge in January, the House tended to operate on a genteel, if unpredictable, schedule for most of the year. The "Tuesday-through-Thursday Club" gave lawmakers long weekends to see their families, consort with constituents and water their political roots back home. The first months were especially low-key. Lawmakers typically did little more than await the President's budget and clear their throats for big debates to come.

All that changed after the 1994 elections, when Republicans promised to bring rapid-fire change to Washington. Portraying the GOP-led Congress as a can-do crowd, Republicans promised to work round the clock, seven days a week if necessary, to meet their self-imposed deadline for voting on their 10-part contract.

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