Changing of the Guard

At first glance, it’s an ambitious agenda. House Democrats plan to pass ethics reform and stem cell research funding, increase the minimum wage, decrease the interest rates charged on student loans, lower prescription drug prices for the elderly, and boost homeland security — all in the first 100 hours of the 110th Congress.

Their hope is to show what do-nothings the Republicans were when they controlled the 109th Congress. But the Democrats’ agenda has little to do with what brought them to power for the first time in 12 years — namely, dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq. Nor does it take on the pressing domestic issues facing the country in a meaningful way.

The Democrats’ model seems to be the whirlwind of legislation passed in the first days of Republican control of the House in 1995. Republicans, who had been out of power for the previous 40 years, quickly enacted a series of reforms, the "Contract with America," which focused on changing the way Congress, especially the House of Representatives, had been doing business for decades.

It’s instructive to look back at what the Republicans promised — and what they were actually able to achieve — in those first heady days. The first item on the Republican agenda in 1995 was requiring "all laws that apply to the rest of the country also apply equally to Congress." In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine that this policy wasn’t always the case, but under one-party rule for so many years, Congress had become notorious for exempting itself from many of the measures it foisted on others.

Republicans easily passed legislation that made civil rights and other laws that applied to all employers apply to Congress. Republicans also limited the size of congressional staffs, re-allocated committee staffing and member assignments more equitably between the majority and minority, limited the terms of office for committee chairmen, eliminated proxy voting in committees, and made other changes to the way Congress conducted its business. But in the end, these changes didn’t bring about fundamental reform, especially as the Republicans became more entrenched in power.

Now the Democrats are turning the tables. They plan on ramming through a number of bills — even if they get little Republican support — that will make them appear to be good-government types who also happen to be taking care of the little guy. It’s no accident that the Democrats’ list of must-pass legislation includes expansion of government benefits to the elderly, students and low-wage workers — each group makes up part of the Democratic base.

But where are the Big Ideas? Or any fundamental challenge to the Bush administration? Sure, some Democrat chairmen are planning committee hearings on the war in Iraq, and a handful of Democrats want to take on the president’s tax cuts — but don’t expect anything revolutionary to happen, and for good reason.

The Democrats’ margin is too slim to accomplish major changes in direction on either the war in Iraq or domestic policy. Americans may be unhappy with the conduct of the war, but their discontent hasn’t developed into a real anti-war movement. There won’t be any cuts on funding for the war anytime soon, nor will millions take to the street in protest of our involvement in Iraq.

And the Democrats can’t claim much of a mandate on other issues either. Raising taxes — even if Democrats argue it is only on "the rich" — doesn’t play well with most Americans. Immigration, another important issue that should be dealt with, is nettlesome for the Democrats as well as the Republicans. And real Social Security and Medicare reform would entail hard choices about limiting future benefits, which Democrats are terrified of addressing.

So for all the hoopla and the changing of the guard, it’s not likely much of real significance will happen in Congress in the next 100 hours, days or even weeks. Ten or 12 years from now, we’ll likely look back on this week as more atmospherics than substance.