Too many people have wasted too much time recently talking about the dim possibility of Republicans' seizing control of the House in November. What Washington should be preparing for instead are the consequences of a weak and palsied grip by Democrats.
The words "Speaker Gingrich" excite Republicans and enrage Democrats, conjuring up images of Tip O'Neill's portrait shrouded in sackcloth and Democratic aides carted off in tumbrels. Speaker Thomas S. Foley dismisses this scenario as "daydreaming," and most election-watchers say he is right.But many Democrats are closing their eyes to the impact of a more plausible GOP gain - 20 to 25 seats, rather than the 40 needed for control. That could produce a nightmare for Democrats and for President Clinton.
Democrats may think they had only marginal control in 1981, when Ronald Reagan and the "Boll Weevils" danced a tattoo on their programs. But Democrats had a 51-seat advantage then, and their leaders brought the mavericks back into the fold within eight months. A 25-seat GOP pickup this year would leave Democrats in charge by only 231-203.
To find a parallel, says Charles O. Jones of the University of Wisconsin, you have to go back to 1950. In the midterm elections of President Harry Truman's last term, Democrats lost 29 seats but kept a 234-199 advantage in the House.
The results were not happy for Truman or his party. Yale University political scientist David R. Mayhew ranks the 82nd among the least productive of modern Congresses. Its landmark, the McCarran-Walter Immigration and Nationality Act, came over Truman's veto of it as a "repressive and inhumane" policy. Fair Deal proposals for national health insurance, aid to eduation and civil rights laws went nowhere.
The political context of today is far different. But a look at a dozen instances of a closely divided House allows a few predictions if the situation recurs:
- No power-sharing. Democrats will not open up the mechanisms of control.
- No functional GOP control. If the GOP gets within 10 seats of control, it might be able to take over via party-switchers (using committee chairmanships as bait). Short of that, it will not be able to initiate policy.
- No GOP cooperation. Minorities tend to be cohesive, particularly if they smell blood, and Republicans will be able to block bills even if they cannot pass them.
- Clinton's Catch-22. Clinton will be boxed in; neither partisanship nor bipartisan appeals will work.
The inescapable outlook is for gridlock that will make the last years of the Reagan and Bush administrations look like an expressway. "Not much will get done under any of the plausible scenarios," says Ronald M. Peters, director of the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center.