APS News

Inside the Beltway: A Washington Analysis

Gridlock or Governance, What'll It Be?

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Predicting the fortunes of science in the aftermath of the 1998 elections is harder than picking a winning number at the roulette table. The political gurus proclaimed the outcome an upset of historical proportions, and the party faithful accepted the dictum as gospel. New leaders and uncertain agendas are the result. Here's how it came to pass. Politics is like the stock market: It's expectations that count. Hewlett-Packard might announce a $50 million quarterly loss, and its stock could still rise ten percent — if analysts were expecting a $100 million loss.

That's pretty much what happened to the Democrats last November. Political observers were anticipating that Republicans would pick up fifteen to thirty seats in the House of Representatives and three to five seats in the Senate. So even though the GOP outscored the Democrats 223 to 211 in House races, maintained their 55 to 45 majority in the Senate, finished with a 31 to 17 advantage in state governors and won 51 to 49 percent in generic voting, pundits declared the Democrats electoral victors.

As a result, President Clinton, who had heard daily calls for his resignation prior to the election, still sat in the Oval Office after the November voting, looking stronger than ever. Instead of the President, it was Speaker Newt Gingrich who left Washington, after his GOP colleagues unceremoniously booted him out of the House leadership position in the election aftermath. With his political passing, Washington lost one of its most outspoken and controversial techno-futurists.

Licking their wounds of failed expectations, the Republicans acted quickly to elect new leaders, or at least replace the ones who had previously pledged their allegiance to the deposed Speaker. In its first organizational meeting last November 19, the GOP elected former Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston of Louisiana to the top House position, installed ex-Oklahoma football star and family-values advocate J.C. Watts as Conference chairman and selected Tom Davis of Virginia as head of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The only survivors of the party purge were two Texans, Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay, staunch conservatives who had been openly critical of Newt Gingrich's pragmatic bent well before the November election. Still, Armey had to fend off challenges by Washington's Jennifer Dunn, a social moderate, and Steve Largent, another Oklahoman with football and family-values credentials. Only Tom Delay escaped unscathed.

Although some of the faces are different, the complexion of the new House GOP leadership is still very conservative, socially and fiscally. Their style may set them apart from their predecessors, but their political philosophy certainly won't. Where they will come down on science is anybody's guess.

Democrats also made some leadership changes, but only because of vacancies created by retirements. Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Minority Whip David Bonior of Michigan retained the party's two top posts, unchallenged. Democrats also elected Texan Martin Frost as chairman of their Caucus and selected Robert Menendez of New Jersey as vice-chairman. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island moved into Frost's former position as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The Senate, despite some grumbling in the GOP ranks, decided not to shuffle the leadership deck at the top. Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota will both be back to direct the Senate's collegial jousting.

Leaders in both parties ordinarily agree on very little, but they are of one mind when it comes to why the Democrats exceeded expectations. While the GOP was blasting President Clinton for lying about his sexual escapades, the Democrats controlled the debate on education, Social Security and HMO reform. These were the core issues voters said they truly cared about. Add Republican capitulation on tax cuts and budget caps during the final days of the congressional session, and you have the makings of a disenchanted GOP electorate sufficient to swing a number of contested elections over to the Democrats.

What went almost unnoticed by many analysts was the pivotal role organized labor played in many key districts. Union households accounted for about 23 percent of the votes cast this year, up almost six percent from the last election. And they voted Democratic by a margin of two to one.

The African-American community, always a Democratic bastion, also turned out in greater numbers in districts where it counted. This year, they voted Democratic by a margin of more than eight to one. About the only place where the GOP met or exceeded pre-election expectations was in the gubernatorial arena. There, moderate Republican candidates won overwhelmingly, even in Democratic strongholds: Cellucci in Massachusetts, Almond in Rhode Island, Rowland in Connecticut, Pataki in New York, Ridge in Pennsylvania, Engler in Michigan, Thompson in Wisconsin, Taft in Ohio, Johnson in New Mexico and the Bush brothers in Texas and Florida.

The counterpoint: Ideologically conservative Republicans-or at least those perceived as such-lost in Senate races in New York, South Carolina, North Carolina and California and in governor's races in California and Alabama.

In all of these states, voters delivered a strong, unambiguous centrist message. The question is whether leaders in either party heard it and if they did, whether they will be able to maintain control over their fractious members. As it was in the 105th Congress, the House of Representatives will be the place to look for the answer. Here are the two scenarios most widely accepted inside the Beltway.

With one independent usually supporting the Democrats, Republicans now hold a razor-thin margin of eleven votes in the House. A mere six defections will cause the GOP to lose a vote. Therefore, according to the governing-from-the-middle scenario, the fifty or so moderate Republicans will reach out to the fifty or so moderate Democrats and establish a coalition that will control the outcome of any contested vote and, thereby, the agenda of the 106th Congress.

That's the view of the optimists. The pessimists point out that the GOP is still dominated by the ideological right and that labor and the left will tell the Democratic leadership that it's pay-back time for delivering the goods in the 1998 elections. According to the gridlock scenario, the House will become even more polarized and suffer terminal paralysis.

Which scenario proves correct will determine how well consensus issues fare. The fate of science, arguably the quintessence of such issues, largely hangs on the outcome. If gridlock prevails, science could be gasping for air by the time Congress sends its budget bills down Pennsylvania Avenue next fall.



©1995 - 2016, AMERICAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY
APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Barrett H. Ripin
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette