New Kids on the Hill

by Dan Pollock | 11/22/00 6:00am

Very little political news has been able to wedge itself past the partisan rancor over the Presidency. However, there were some fairly interesting aspects of the 2000 election that didn't involve melodrama, chads, dimples or butterflies. In many ways, the 2000 congressional elections were just as historic as the presidential race, although for very different reasons.

The fight for control of Congress turned out to be nearly as close as the presidential race. The Republicans will control the House for a fourth term with 220 seats to the Democrats' 211 seats, two Independents and two races still undecided. The GOP's win was a result of many factors, but none was as definitive as the incumbent advantage. The fact that incumbents in the House were re-elected at a rate of 98.4 percent shows just how powerful this strong economy was in this election. It gives further evidence that it was Gore's poor campaigning skills that have led to the current Florida fiasco. A more capable politician might have won decisively on the economy alone.

Not since the 84th Congress in 1955 has the Senate been so evenly split. The GOP has a one-vote majority 50-49, with Washington state's Senate race still undecided (currently incumbent and Dartmouth alumnus, Senator Slade Gorton leads by 12,959 votes). Even if Gorton wins, there are several other GOP Senators whose ailing health could change the balance of power. (The least-healthy member of the new Senate by far is Missouri's Mel Carnahan who, despite having been killed in a plane crash, still managed to win his Senate race with some help from his widowed wife.) If Thurmond and Helms decide to retire in the next year, the North and South Carolina Governors (both Democrats) would appoint their replacements. Thus, Democrats could take over the Senate in the near future or it could be split 50-50 with the next Vice President breaking the ties. If the Senate does end up without a majority party, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle has threatened that he might demand co-chairmanships of committees in order to reflect the even control. Logistically however, such power sharing could prove a nightmare. Such mundane issues as who gets to use the Chairman's office space or who decides when the committee has a hearing might all have to be improvised.

The 107th Congress will be, as pundits often like to point out, "the best Congress that money can buy." According to the Federal Election Commission, this year's congressional candidates had raised $800.7 million and spent $683.1 million as of October 18. The aggregate figures aren't entirely representative of the whole Congress, however. One individual, New Jersey Senator-elect Jon Corzine, spent almost $53 million of his own money on the race. Keep in mind that Clinton only spent $55 million during the entire 1992 Presidential election (Source: Common Cause). In Corzine's defense, there is nothing illegal about spending your own money to get elected. In fact, Corzine himself is proud of the fact that he owes his victory to nobody but himself. Corzine's campaign flyers even bragged, "The special interests can't buy him!" Which makes sense; how could the special interests ever afford to buy him?

Special interests were at least able to participate in the New York Senate race. Hillary Clinton spent less than Corzine to get elected (a modest $26 million). But since First Ladies don't have the same size bank account as Goldman Sachs CEOs (Corzine's previous profession), Hillary had to rely on 'soft money' to make up the difference. Despite their pledge to do otherwise, the Hillary and Rick race received $2,163,485 in soft money transfers from the national parties, although it's significant to note that 91 percent of the soft money came from Democratic Committees (Source: Center for Responsive Politics).

Clearly the 107th Congress will have some sharply conflicting priorities. The Members owe a lot of favors to a lot of donors; but, neither party can claim a mandate, so it could just be gridlock as usual. If the new Congress accomplishes anything, it will be only those legislative items that are incredibly popular. For example, they will probably eliminate the marriage penalty, the tax laws that force married couples to pay higher taxes than they would if they were single. We will see some type of prescription drug benefit for seniors " although not necessarily through Medicare. The military will get pay raises and increased funding. Controversial issues won't stand a chance. Anything to do with abortion is going to be off-limits, which includes extremist judges (selected by either Gore or Bush.) Gun control or gun deregulation is such an emotional topic, it seems doubtful that significant gun legislation of any kind will pass. Lastly, Social Security will not be reformed by this Congress. Although Social Security is an issue that both candidates campaigned on, it is the kind of issue that requires an incredible amount of political capital. Neither the new legislators on the hill nor the President-elect will have any of that.