Congress At The Margins

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

The Gingrich era, and perhaps the Republican revolution he envisioned four years ago, is over. The Livingston era ended before it began. The House impeachment of President Clinton, arguably the most noteworthy achievement of the 105th Congress (whether for good or bad), is but a memory to a disinterested public. And political control in Washington is as marginal as it has been in decades.

So as the 106th Congress begins, where do we go from here? A good question indeed — and one that newly anointed House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., himself asked rhetorically just before his Jan. 6 coronation. Hastert wondered aloud about the possibilities of stalemate in a House where Republicans hold the narrowest majority (222-211) in 46 years, of a Democratic president who may want revenge for an impeachment he sees as partisan, or of a minority determined to squelch any majority-backed legislation as both parties look to the election of a new president and Congress in 2000.

Any of those scenarios, or all of them, may emerge in coming months. Or Congress and the president may rise above the partisanship of 1998 (which increased 5 percent over 1997, according to a recent analysis by Congressional Quarterly). But for congressional observers who cannot wait for the perennial power struggle to unfold, a look at the past may offer some insights to the future.

A different world
Marginal control within Congress — defined as either a difference of 20 House seats or less or five Senate seats or less for this story — is quite rare. (The most recent example: Republicans had majorities of 221-213 in the House and 48-47 in the Senate during the first two years of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first presidential term.) And in some respects, the 106th Congress will be breaking new ground.

For starters, it will govern with a narrow majority during a time of relative calm. In the past, narrow majorities have occurred amidst upheaval — during westward expansion (30th Congress), as the nation contemplated slavery (31st), at the close of Reconstruction (45th), just before World War I (65th), at the outset of the Great Depression (72nd) and in the early years of the Cold War (83rd), for example.

The current Congress also will feature the first battle between a term-limited president in his final two years and a House controlled just barely by the opposition party. Presidents as obscure as Martin Van Buren and Benjamin Harrison ruled during times of marginal control of Congress, but they did so earlier in their terms or just before facing voters’ rejection at the polls. The same is true of more familiar, and more popular, presidents like Democrat Woodrow Wilson and Eisenhower.