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A Slow Going Congress

March 12, 1997 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: In its first two months the 105th Congress has been in session on the floor for only 58 hours, and it has taken just 27 votes. During the same time frame two years ago the 104th Congress had seen 296 hours of floor action and had held 176 votes.

For perspective on this we turn to five House members, all of whom came on the NewsHour from time to time during their first term in office. With us again are four sophomores, Democrat Zoe Lofgren of California, and Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania, and Republicans Zach Wamp of Tennessee and George Nethercutt of Washington. They’re joined tonight by third term Republican Congressman Henry Bonilla of Texas. Welcome back all of you. Zach Wamp, let’s start with you. Explain these statistics. What’s going on?

REP. ZACH WAMP, (R) Tennessee: Well, they said we were going too fast in the last Congress, and now some people say we’re going too slow. I think that we’re methodically going about our business, and I think we caught our stride really last year as we tried to get presidential signatures on a number of initiatives and we did, and they re-elected us and said now you’re at a pace we can stay with you on, and we’re going about our business in a very professional way. We all three serve on the Appropriations Committee where we’re working real hard to continue downsizing the federal government, leading to a balanced budget, and it’s tough work. We’re at the committee right now, all of us, trying to find ways to continue to reduce spending.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with that, there’s more going on here than meets the eye?

REP. GEORGE NETHERCUTT, (R) Washington: Oh, for sure, Margaret. I think this is a deliberate pace that we’re engaged in. We couldn’t possibly sustain the pace that we had two years ago. That was terribly unusual. It was productive, in my judgment. It was a good thing that we did it. But now we’re back to I think a more sensible pace, at least some of us have a life now, and somehow the workload is bigger than it’s ever been, I believe. It’s just more local to our districts. We’re able to focus on issues that are important to us individually and our district, and we’ll get to the nation’s business from a national perspective in due course.

MARGARET WARNER: You held a press conference today, Chaka Fattah, with quite a different perspective on this.

REP. CHAKA FATTAH, (D) Pennsylvania: Well, I said today had to do with what the Congress is doing, that is, the committee I serve on, the Government Reform Committee, is spending a great amount looking at the 1996 elections, and looking into irregular or illegal activity that took place. And I suggested that we should use the Federal Election Commission which the Congress set up and we fund to regulate and investigate federal elections, rather than spend our committee’s time on it. I don’t think it’s a matter of just the clock, how much time we’re spending. The compass is more important actually, what direction are we going in, and I think there is a new sense in the Congress of a slower pace which is a lot healthier for us all, I think, from the humanistic standpoint, but we have not yet I think found our stride on focusing in on the critical issues that face the country. We haven’t been able to really set our sights in terms of what we’re going to do to improve educational opportunities, for instance. So I think that there’s some work for us to do. The pace is a lot slower, but I think the end product has to be relative to the nation’s priorities.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you see as the biggest difference between this first couple of months of this Congress and last time?

REP. ZOE LOFGREN, (D) California: Well, in the last Congress we did all-nighters. Once I think we were in session for 36 hours in a row and voted on things mostly that never became law and it was very contentious. This year I think we’ve gone off in the opposite extreme, and we’re really not doing much of anything. The Science Committee that I serve on is a wonderful, important committee, got organized this morning, and here it is mid March. And I will say we’ve tried even without having assignments to have hearings and the like. I think the members are interested in doing something useful, but for whatever reason we’re not really producing results on the subject that people really care a lot about. What I hear when I go home is education and juvenile delinquency and prevention and how do we get our country back on the right track on a bipartisan basis.

MARGARET WARNER: Why do you think Congress isn’t coming to grips yet with these issues?

REP. ZOE LOFGREN: Well, it’s hard to know. We just came back from a bipartisan retreat that I thought was very healthy, and where some members who’ve been here for years, over ten years, spoke to each other for the first time, so I am hopeful that at least having met each other now, we’ll be able to engage in the dialogue and find common ground because the common ground for the most part was not present in the 104th, and it hasn’t been present really in the 105th.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Bonilla, how do you see it? Because you have a longer–even longer view than everyone here. Do you see the slowdown as a healthy development, as your fellow Republicans do, or something else?

REP. HENRY BONILLA, (R) Texas: Well, this Congress is not only different from the last Congress but it’s very different from the Congress before. If you’ll recall, when Bill Clinton was elected the first time, the Democrats had a huge majority and a very, very aggressive big government agenda. And then the next time America–elections, America rejected that, and we got the Republican majority, and we had a very aggressive Republican agenda. And frankly, we tried to save the world in 100 days, and it was too fast for the American people to accept without us educating them and taking them along, letting them know what we’re doing slowly because we have to remember people out there are worried about the same things. They’re going to church festivals; they’re concerned about regulations, and private property rights, and legal problems in their communities via tort reform, and they’re not reading the “Washington Post” every day here and saying, hey, how come you’re not–don’t have a more aggressive agenda like the “Washington Post” and “New York Times” might be suggesting? When we go home, we’re not hearing anyone tell us, hey, what’s wrong with the pace this time? They’re talking about the same issues that we’ve been hearing about some time. They want us to eliminate the IRS. They want us to basically get the government off their back, off their land, and out of their pocket. And they’re understanding that we’ve got to go a little slower this time at a more normal pace, and they’re accepting of that.

The other thing that’s important is that there’s not a lot of enthusiasm to try to pass 10 bills in a week or whatever and then watch the guy up the street on Pennsylvania Avenue simply veto them all. We’ve got to find a different way to approach this, so we don’t just have a confrontation with the White House every time.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Zach Wamp, as you know, a lot of conservatives on the outside are taking what three of you have said, which is we’re trying to work at a pace the American people can accept. And they accused you of timidity. I mean, Ralph Reed, the head of the Christian Coalition, said the leadership was afflicted by timidity, retreat, and muddleheaded moderation. What do you say to critics like that?

REP. ZACH WAMP: We’re in the trenches doing the people’s work to the best of our ability. And I think frankly we’re trying not to be influenced so much by outside groups, whether they’re conservative groups or liberal groups. I think maybe in the past there’s been a propensity in this town to listen too much to these groups, instead of just doing the common sense thing that’s right there in front of your nose.

There’s so much confusion right now with all these campaign finance reform scandals and all this stuff in the city anyway if were doing a lot more, they might not notice it because every night the banner story is yet another one of these issues. And I hope that we’ll fix the campaign finance system before we go too much further down the road with other legislation because there’s a need for it, and it’s a systemic problem. It’s not the Democrats. It’s both parties. It’s the system, and I think Ross Perot’s right on this issue. There’s good people up here caught in a bad system that needs to be fixed by both parties.

MARGARET WARNER: How much did Speaker Gingrich’s ethics problems and the aftermath of that, how much is that affecting all of you and the sort of energy and cohesion and drive behind House Republicans?

REP. GEORGE NETHERCUTT: Margaret, I think it was a distraction. It slowed us down, I believe, from getting to work earlier in a more vocal way and a more national way setting forth an agenda and saying this is what we want to accomplish this year. It was a distraction, that which is going on down at the White House is also a distraction.

MARGARET WARNER: You’re talking about the fund-raising question and so on?

REP. GEORGE NETHERCUTT: Certainly. A new scandal essentially, new information, conflicting information every single day, and that’s troublesome to me as a member who wants to go to work and do good work, but on the other hand, I’ll tell you, as has been said here, we’re working–I’ve not been much busier during the day. I’ve got four hearings held all at the same time. I’m going one to the other. We’re working on appropriations measures that are really setting the tone for how the country will develop and what funding we will provide for the various programs that are funded by the taxpayer. We’re being very careful about how we fund those, and we’re being sensitive to the taxpayers’ needs and also having that be reflected through the appropriations process, so maybe our friends here are having a little slower time, but the three of us are very busy, and we’ll meet our obligations in the Appropriations arena on time this year, won’t be subject to criticism, and we’ll move forward.

MARGARET WARNER: But I mean, there are some Republican members who are impatient and unhappy, are there not? I mean, Scott Kluge from Wisconsin said if the first 100 days last time reflected the Bataan Death March this has been like a 100 day Club Med.

REP. HENRY BONILLA: No organization is going to have total agreement. I’m sure that you have disagreements within your own household and you have disagreements within this television operation here. So, sure, we’re going to have some, but it’s healthy discussion that we can all get together and try to work on a common–Scott Kluge agrees on us on what we ought to be accomplishing. Whether or not the pace is something we can agree on is something we can work out, so it’s not a problem to have that disagreement within our ranks.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you two see, as you look over at your Republican colleagues, not just these but in the House, what is your assessment, and I’ll start with you, Chaka Fattah, what is your assessment of why they aren’t as hard charging as they were last time?

REP. CHAKA FATTAH: I think that the American public in the last election re-elected Bill Clinton. He ran on a platform that he wants to see the country do more in education, protect our environment, rescue Medicare from its difficulties, that these agenda items that the President was re-elected on differ slightly from the Republican priorities, and they’re having a hard time reconciling their desire to work with the President and get some things done, and what the President would like to get done and seemingly what the American people re-elected him to do. So that there are some natural conflicts here, and there’s been this call for bipartisan cooperation. Now that does not mean non-partisan. Both parties have an agenda, and we have to find a way to get them together in a way that helps–to help the country. We have some work to do, and it’s just a matter of how soon we’re going to get to work at it.

MARGARET WARNER: And how cohesive are you Democrats? There again have been a lot of outside commentaries saying that with your minority leader, Dick Gephardt, already jockeying for a position for the year 2000, that that’s affecting your ability say to work with the White House and the President on certain issues. Do you see that yet?

REP. ZOE LOFGREN: I haven’t seen that yet. Actually the President has–we were over all the women last Thursday and spent about an hour and a half with the President and Vice President going through issues, and I haven’t seen that.

But just commenting on Chaka’s comment, I agree, but I think going back to bipartisanship, what I heard from some of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle in the retreat, just informally talking, is that, you know, there’s disagreements on the Republican side, and there are certainly disagreements on the Democratic side, but the margins are narrower in terms of the majority. There are ten votes, you know, that separate the majority from the minority really and so the divisions really make it hard to move forward which really tells me and I think a lot of us we’ve got to work together on a bipartisan basis to do things in the center, and I would argue, as Chaka said, on the agenda items that the American people chose in the presidential elections, specifically and importantly education, which is the number one issue that my constituents talk to me about and that all the polls show is the key to the future of this country.

MARGARET WARNER: So where do you think, if there is going to be the prospect of working with your Democratic colleagues, are they on the same issues that they see it?

REP. GEORGE NETHERCUTT: Well, certainly. I think we share the same issues. We may differ certainly on how we get the results that each of us want, but I think our results are a little different than theirs traditionally. We want to have government be more responsive, cut out waste and efficiency. We think that local control is better than government control at the federal level, so our philosophy is taking us in that direction. That’s where we may clash in the coming weeks and months. This philosophical difference that the President has with the Congress, the majority in the Congress and some on the Democratic Party have–we’ll have our differences but I think our ultimate objective is get to a balanced budget, get there honestly, and give faith to the American public that we’re doing the people’s work.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree, when you all really start getting down to issues, there are still going to be some big clashes?

REP. ZACH WAMP: Well, the bipartisan congressional leadership met with the President on the Hill just a couple of weeks ago. He came up to the Hill and met with ‘em, and they came up five issues, and those are the five good issues, but noticeably absent, Margaret, was campaign finance reform at a time where we’re in a crisis, and if crisis doesn’t bring about resolution and change, when are we going to change? We haven’t changed this system since Watergate. That crisis brought about that reform. We’re in a crisis again, and we’ve got to come together on campaign finance reform. I’m going to keep saying it until everybody does because we’ve got to do it. The other issues are still very important, but if this is not a crisis in government and public trust, I don’t know what is.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you five very much. It’s very nice to have you back.