Congress' Rookies Will Be Ready To Rock

The clarion call for "change" may be boffo on the Presidential campaign trail, but in Washington the word evokes dread. And this year the gloom is especially thick on Capitol Hill. Voters, furious at incumbents, are expected to see to it that one in three seats in the House of Representatives is filled by a newcomer next January. In the Senate, turnover won't be as drastic--but up to 18 rookies could take seats in the upper chamber come 1993.

Moreover, the insurgents are so determined to shake things up that they're not even waiting until they're sworn in to organize. They're already contacting one another to share ideas for reform. Soon after the election, they plan to meet to try to work out a full-fledged bipartisan agenda. And the confab is set not for Washington but for Omaha. "Before we're all given the inside-the-Beltway indoctrination in Washington, we want to set the stage for working together," says meeting organizer Tom Huening, the Republican candidate for a hotly contested open House seat in Northern California. Huening says congressional leaders, who would rather see the new members meet at their orientation in December, have issued "subtle and not-so-subtle warnings" against the rump gathering.

UNIMPRESSED. Lack of respect for the powers that be is a hallmark of the incoming Class of '92. They're heading to Washington not only with an attitude but also with an agenda for reform. And they are coming in numbers large enough to guarantee that they will be heard.

A record number of retirements, along with a throw-the-rascals-out mood that has already cost some senior lawmakers their jobs in primaries, ensures that 1992 will see the biggest influx of new House members in modern history. The casualty count is already above 85, and the final tally is expected to climb somewhere between 125 and 185. In the Senate, retirements and primary defeats guarantee eight new members, and as many as half of the 35 seats up this year could change hands.

The newcomers don't easily fit into categories. But a few things are clear: They're determined to break the political logjam that has stalled action on the budget deficit and many social problems. And they have no respect for hoary congressional rules and traditions. "The 1992 election is a watershed in American political history," says Brian Little, government relations director for the U.S. Business & Industrial Council. "Regardless of candidates' party affiliation, their mandate is: 'Washington has become a sewer, and it's time to clean it up.' "There's no chance that the newcomers will be the quiet, respectful members called for by Capitol Hill tradition. "I don't see anything as sacrosanct," says Maryland State Senator Albert R. Wynn, a Democrat who is all but certain to win in a newly created black-majority House district in suburban Washington. "The new group is going to come in committed to changing the existing order rather than fitting in."

The nation's changing demographics are fueling the upheaval in Congress. Thanks to the Voting Rights Act and the once-a-decade process of reapportionment, the new Congress will more accurately reflect the changing racial and ethnic mix of America. There will be more minorities and more suburbanites. House seats will shift from the industrial North and the farm states to the South and West. But perhaps the most visible change will be the significant increase in the number of women who will find a home on the Hill. In the white-male club known as the Senate, the token presence of two women--so starkly underlined by the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings--is likely to swell to six or eight. California might even make history by choosing two female senators, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. Overall, Democrats are likely to bolster their current 57-43 edge in the Senate by picking up from one to six seats.

"The next Congress will be younger, darker, better educated, with a higher percentage of working women," predicts Democratic consultant Ann F. Lewis. "It will be less partisan, less responsive to interest groups, and more responsive to the public." But for all the increase in cultural diversity, the new House is likely to be more conservative and less trusting of government's ability to solve social and economic problems.

CONSERVATIVE BENT. One reason is that Republicans are likely to gain strength with the shift of seats to the Sunbelt. The final partisan breakdown will depend on the vagaries of the Presidential election, but Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the authoritative Rothenberg Political Report, predicts a likely GOP pickup of 16 to 20 House seats (table). GOP gains could dip into single digits if Democratic Presidential candidate Bill Clinton wins big, or approach 30 if the President stages a Trumanesque comeback by bashing the "gridlocked Democratic Congress."

The invasion of newcomers will only accelerate a trend that has been quietly under way in the House since the early 1980s. Liberals have run the House for decades and will continue to dominate the Democratic leadership. But their power has been eroded by the increasing political strength of the Sunbelt and the suburbs.

President Bush is counting on congressional newcomers to provide critical backing for budget restraint. Interestingly, Clinton would also need reform-minded freshmen to keep his party's left wing in check and to provide votes for his plans to cut the federal bureaucracy. Whoever wins the White House, the trick will be forging a working coalition between the House GOP and the moderate and conservative House Democrats led by Texas Representative Charles W. Stenholm, chairman of the Conservative Democratic Forum.

INDEPENDENT MINDS. But on key issues, the newcomers will follow their own lights. "These are people of substance," says Jeffrey Eisenach, executive director of GOPAC, a conservative Republican campaign committee, headed by House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), which is involved in more than 100 House races. "They're running substantive campaigns, and they'll come to Washington with substantive agendas."

Institutional reform is at the top of their list. When Congress meets to organize in December, the new members will play a crucial role in attempts to dump some aging committee chairmen. The leading targets are 82-year-old House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jamie Whitten (D-Miss.) and 76-year-old House Banking Committee boss Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.).

The insurgents also want to restrict contributions by political action committees, reduce staff and budget for members and committees, trim free-mailing privileges, and make Congress operate under the same civil rights and occupational-safety laws it imposes on American businesses.

Internal reforms aside, most newcomers claim their top priorities are economic growth and deficit reduction. Expect the freshmen to be impatient with the smoke-and-mirrors budget deals of recent years. Instead, they are likely to force a painful public debate on everything from cuts in entitlement programs to higher taxes on the wealthy.

The increasing number of women on Capitol Hill will enhance chances for a host of family issues that have been caught between the Democratic Congress and the Republican White House. Among the most likely to become law in 1993: new tax breaks for families with children, mandated family leave, and federal child care programs.

The growth in suburban House seats could give a boost to proposals dealing with improved educational standards and environmental protection. And with the addition of up to 20 black and Latino members, there should be more attention focused on bills to create enterprise zones, job-training initiatives, full funding for Head Start, rural health care programs, and tax breaks to encourage investment in inner cities.

The Class of '92 stands a better chance of improving the workings of Congress than the last big influx of fresh blood, the "Watergate babies" of 1974. That group won major rule revisions that weakened the power of leaders and committee chairmen. But those changes created a proliferation of subcommittees that has contributed to the House's paralysis.

BRAVE WORDS. In contrast to the political neophytes who dominated the Class of '74, many of this year's newcomers have experience in state or local government. There's also a wave of entrepreneurs and executives ready to bring their problem-solving expertise. "I'm a successful businessman," says Huening, a Silicon Valley real estate developer. "I don't want to waste my time. I want to get the deficit under control, and I don't want to see games played."

The newcomers' independence and ambitious plans are discomfiting to the barons of the Hill. Senior leadership aides, both Democratic and Republican, privately dismiss the talk of sweeping change as naive. Still, they're bracing for a bumpy ride. "It'll be a real challenge to plot any course," says one. "We have to stay flexible and try to maintain some sense of direction." The leaders should be worried, because the insurgents are likely to be reluctant followers. "We've already made many contacts with one another in an attempt to build a cooperative spirit," says Democrat Anita Perez Ferguson, who is seeking a House seat in Santa Barbara, Calif. "We are ready and prepared to move."

Brave words--and such declarations are common from brash newcomers. But judging by the trembling among their elders on Capitol Hill, the Class of '92 may actually make good on its bravado.

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