Sunday, December 10, 2006

GOP Laments Mixed Results As Control of Congress Ends

Demoralized Republicans adjourned the 109th Congress at 5 a.m. yesterday with a near-empty Capitol, closing the door on a dozen years of nearly unbroken GOP control by spending more time in the final days lamenting their failures -- to rein in government, tame the deficit and temper their own lust for power -- than reliving their successes.

Still reeling from their electoral defeat Nov. 7, Republicans capped an era of conservative ascendance with the passage of business tax break extensions, a package of trade measures, and legislation to stave off physician-payment cuts they once trumpeted in their budget-cutting drive.

While GOP leaders touted their handiwork, it was a far cry from 12 years ago when the Republicans swept to power with the zeal of self-described revolutionaries and a mission to shrink the size of government, limit its reach, strengthen the nation's security and end an era of a privileged, imperial Congress.

"Together, we reformed welfare. We cut taxes, and small businesses grew all over the nation," House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said in a late-night farewell address. "We promised to protect this nation from further attack, and by grace of God and with the leadership of President Bush, we have been successful."

But beyond Hastert's speech, a conclusion punctuated by the release of a scathing House ethics committee report on the Mark Foley-House page scandal and last-minute budget squabbles yielded more recriminations than congratulations.

"You know, the American people took the reins of government away from the Republican Party . . . in this last election. They did so, I think, in large part because they were tired of our hypocrisy," fumed Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) from the Senate floor. "Our leadership and some of our members grew arrogant in their own power, and with arrogance comes corruption," said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), a member of the class of 1994.

"We came to change Washington, and Washington changed us," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

As they grapple with defeat, Republicans seem to have difficulty taking stock of their 12 years in power, but those years had enormous impact. Republican Congresses fundamentally changed the welfare system, cut taxes time and again, expanded the powers of the government to combat terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and added a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.

Combing through the fine print of the 1994 "Contract With America" campaign manifesto, one finds goals that Americans now largely take for granted. Congressional committee chairmen, who once built empires from inviolable perches, are now term limited. The contract anticipated a lucrative tax credit for each child, the end of a tax penalty on marriage, federal incentives for adoption, the easing of limits on the amount seniors could earn and still receive their Social Security benefits and some curbs on civil litigation. The overriding political fear of tax increases, still evident as Democrats move to resume control, can be seen as a conservative victory, as can a federal minimum wage that has grown increasingly irrelevant after nearly a decade without change.

Yet measured against the ambitions of 1994, not much has changed. The House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee might be no more, but the departments of commerce, education and energy, once slated for the chopping block, are still very much alive, as are the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Compared with the size of the economy, government discretionary spending has grown. The vision of a term-limited Congress of everymen, rotating through Washington after short stints, has all but vanished. And government programs such as Medicare and federal education bureaucracies are larger and more pervasive.

"It's a mixed bag," said former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), the architect of the 1994 revolution. "In a three-year period, we changed things fairly dramatically. We, candidly, then failed."

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