Here Comes Gridlock '96

Dug-in liberals and GOP zealots spell election-year paralysis

Citing irreconcilable differences with his Republican foes, President Clinton vetoes appropriations bill after appropriations bill, leaving large chunks of the government to run on fumes. A bitter budget impasse shutters the federal bureaucracy for the longest stretch in history, forcing the Treasury to resort to creative accounting to fund essential arms of government. Voters increasingly dismiss the capital caterwauling as the latest example of Washington's childishness. Actually, there's another way to describe the capital's escalating political brawl: dress rehearsal.

As the 1995 legislative season draws to a rancorous close with the fate of a budget-balancing accord, welfare reform, and other key legislation unresolved, the tone is being set for next year's policy struggles. In the best of times, an election-year Congress can be expected to elevate political theatrics over substance. But the ideological differences between dug-in Democratic liberals, GOP hardliners, and a President obsessed by reelection will ensure that next year's Congress--and any chance business had for advancing the solid legislative gains of '95--will be stymied by paralyzing political gamesmanship.

Even as GOP and Administration budget negotiators warily convened for a round of post-Christmas talks, the realization was growing that after months of Republican dominance, Washington has once again become Gridlock City. "We're ready to kill each other already," laments a Democratic leadership aide. "It can't get any worse--can it?"

Actually, it can, and it will. Bolstered by his success at using the Medicare debate to paint Republicans as extremists, President Clinton plans to continue his political jiu-jitsu in 1996. The new target: a GOP flat-tax proposal that the Administration will cast as a boondoggle for wealthy investors. Says a Clinton adviser: "Medicare was just a dress rehearsal for what Republicans are in for when Democrats start in on the `tax giveaway for the rich."'

HANGING TOUGH. If Clinton is spoiling for another fight along class lines, he's sure to find one with a combative group of Hill conservatives who are not letting House Speaker Newt Gingrich's plunging popularity cool their fervor. The freshmen have hardened GOP resistance to a budget-balancing accord and promise to make more trouble next year by redoubling attacks on the welfare state.

The hang-tough tactics "haven't been marching orders from Newt Gingrich," says rookie Representative Steve Largent (R-Okla.). "We came in here with our name on the dotted line." Adds freshman Representative Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.): "We've been called radical and extreme, but I think we're right out of the heart of America." Still, business leaders worry that the freshmen's all-or-nothing approach is overly antagonistic. "The war is worth fighting," says Amway President Dick DeVos. "But it shouldn't be done stupidly."

To appreciate just how complicated 1996's legislative equation will be, take a short stroll across the Capitol from the foxholes of House GOP guerrillas to the placid quarters of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. The Republican front-runner will pursue his own agenda--and none of it includes riling potential voters, Gingrich-style. Dole plans a light Senate schedule for the first three months of '96, which will give him lots of time to wrap up the nomination. Concedes one senior House staffer: "All we're going to get done around here is the minimum must-pass agenda."

Even a minimal Hill agenda could fall victim to gridlock. Aside from monitoring preliminary hearings on radical simplification of the tax code, business is keenest on winning regulatory relief from nuisance lawsuits, environmental mandates, and overeager regulators who don't weigh the potential economic impact of new rules. The outlook for sweeping change is even gloomier. For starters, Dems will continue to score political points by portraying GOP reformers as too cozy with polluters and overly beholden to corporate benefactors. And House and Senate Republican moderates will continue to line up with Dems against GOP radicals. The bottom line for business: little progress in '96.

On another front of interest to business lobbyists--political reform--bipartisan attempts to limit the role of organized giving in political campaigns seem likely to be thwarted by the leaders of both parties. Newly triumphant Republican leaders are shaking the corporate money tree hard and don't want to give up their advantage. Democrats, meanwhile, remain hooked on reforms that include taxpayer subsidies vehemently opposed by Republicans. The prospect: Look for superficial reforms, at best, and torrents of pious rhetoric.

DEEP BELIEFS. GOP plans to dismantle New Deal social programs by returning responsibility to the states will face tough sledding, too. Already, GOP moderates have quashed reformers' efforts to turn food stamps and the school lunch program into state-run block grants. And Clinton's attack on GOP schemes to shift Medicaid to state capitals is just a preview of a '96 Democratic assault that charges Republicans aim to shred the social safety net. The outlook: Although Clinton may yet cut a deal on a proposal to end the federal guarantee of open-ended welfare benefits, other GOP "devolution" initiatives will languish.

At bottom, deeply held partisan beliefs frame this running debate about the role of government. But the tactics of the combatants are disturbing the American electorate. In December, the Harris Poll's annual "alienation index" hit a 30-year high. And an Associated Press poll released on Dec. 26 found that 29% of those surveyed said neither political party addresses their top concerns. That's why the return of Washington gridlock will spur demands for new political options--whether it's Ross Perot's infant Reform Party or another movement.

"People are concerned by all the posturing and shifting of blame," says New Hampshire pollster Richard Bennett. "All politicians are going to pay the price." Perhaps. But until a resurgent Bill Clinton, unrepentant Gingrichites, and comeback-minded Democratic liberals pause to assess the long-term costs of their scorched-earth tactics, don't look for any break from gridlock politics. All sides are having too much fun gumming up the gears of the American political machinery to stop now.

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