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Hill Democrats Are Ready To Rumble With Gingrich And Clinton

Washington Outlook


Hoping to capitalize on Bill Clinton's big lead, Newt Gingrich's unpopularity, and millions spent by unions and environmental groups, House Democrats went all out to regain their majority. Now that they've fallen short--and face years of wandering in the wilderness--Hill Democrats are taking a cue from the aggressive script Gingrich used to destabilize ruling Dems in the early '90s.

It's a variation of the "triangulation" scheme Clinton used last spring, seizing the political center by casting himself as the defender of moderates alienated by both liberal Democrats and GOP hard-liners. Now, House Democrats hope to pose as defenders of working-class Americans, caught in the brutal game of budget balancing that compromiser Clinton may play with the Hill majority. If the President tries to cut a politically risky deal with Republicans, the Dems will attack the GOP on issues where they're vulnerable: Medicare spending, environmental protection, and aid to education. "If they go ahead with an extremist agenda, we're going to clean their clocks," vows Representative George Miller (D-Calif.).

NO DEALS. That's bad news for Clinton, who will want to work with Congress to cement his role as a centrist leader and seal his place in history. But House Democrats are more concerned about the next election. Indeed, their situation resembles the GOP's in 1990, when House Republican firebrands led by Gingrich assailed President Bush for cutting a tax-hiking budget deal with a Democratic Congress. Newt's strategy contributed to Bush's 1992 defeat but paved the way for the 1994 GOP Hill sweep.

Now that they're on the sidelines, veteran House Democrats feel no obligation to cut deals. "None whatsoever," says Representative Barney Frank (Mass.). "There's much less pressure on the minority." Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) was more diplomatic after being reelected as Minority Leader on Nov. 18, pleading with Republicans to "meet us in the middle." But then he lacerated the GOP for favoring "deep, disabling cuts in Medicare and education." Meanwhile, House Minority Whip David E. Bonior (Mich.) is turning up the heat on ethics complaints against Gingrich.

When they're not playing antagonist, Democrats hope to have a say in policy by pushing popular middle-class issues. Atop the list are education initiatives, including tax breaks for college tuition, additional funding for school computers and literacy programs, and federal aid to rebuild crumbling school buildings. Other legislative priorities: preventing corporations from raiding employee pension funds, prohibiting insurance companies from ordering outpatient mastectomies, preserving food-stamp benefits for ex-welfare recipients, and requiring U.S. allies in Europe and Asia to pay a greater share of defense costs.

MASS EXODUS? Democrats know they must chalk up some wins before 1998. Historically, a second-term President's party suffers big losses in midterm congressional elections. Also, Dems face a likely mass exodus of veterans who chose to stick it out in '96 hoping for a party triumph. Potential retirees include once-powerful committee chairmen John D. Dingell of Michigan (Commerce), Henry B. Gonzalez of Texas (Banking), George E. Brown Jr. of California (Science), Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana (International Relations), and J. Joseph Moakley of Massachusetts (Rules).

Retirement may prove a handy escape from the humiliation of continued minority status. But other senior Democrats see guerrilla warfare as a more effective antidote. It won't be popular with Hill Republicans or the Democrat in the White House, but it's the only survival strategy they've got.EDITED BY OWEN ULLMANN By Richard S. DunhamReturn to top


Doing business on the Internet is still a novelty. But a new Clinton Administration proposal aims to make the global network a prime arena for boosting trade in U.S. services and software. The initiative, to be unveiled on Nov. 25, calls for new Info Highway rules, including keeping it a duty-free avenue for commerce. Currently, trade on the Net is hobbled by a lack of global standards for electronic contracts, signatures, and the like. The Clintonites are championing a uniform code that would facilitate electronic sales with few government rules.

The Administration hopes to preempt moves by other nations that could gum up the Internet with red tape, taxes, and tariffs. "The role of government is to create a predictable legal environment, not to regulate trade on the Net," says a top U.S. official.

The proposal is the brainchild of White House adviser Ira C. Magaziner, a trade and technology expert who took a beating from business over his failed 1994 plan to overhaul the nation's health-care system. But high-tech execs are cheering Magaziner's latest handiwork. "It's amazingly sensible," says cybermaven Esther Dyson, president of EDVenture Holdings.

It's also an enormous challenge. Issues ranging from taxing electronic transactions to ensuring a secure payments system have to be ironed out. And that will require arduous global negotiations. But if Magaziner's plan prevails, America's world-beating software, entertainment, and business-service exporters could reap a new bonanza trading on the I-way.EDITED BY OWEN ULLMANN By Amy BorrusReturn to top

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