Federal Dateline

A Series of Centrist Tidings

by Nick Penning

The month of March, it is suggested, can foretell the future: If it comes in "like a lamb," it will go out "like a lion."

Congress and the president have been unusually lamb-like this year. But given the election results, they have every reason to be. The country saw what it had in Congress—a narrow Republican majority—and seemed to like that. On the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, a slim majority apparently liked the president they elected four years ago.

So while President Clinton is indeed the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to be re-elected, his plurality over Bob Dole is nothing like the FDR-induced thrashing the public gave to Alf Landon, the moderate Kansas governor whose mild-mannered daughter, Nancy Kassebaum, did get to Washington and recently ended her 18 years in the Senate.

Why all this pleasant agreement? It serves each political party’s best interests to seek out and stay put in the middle because that’s where the public seems to be. No more roaring right-wing rhetoric by Rep. Bob Dornan, R-Calif., who was defeated in November by a Hispanic woman. And while Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., tried to rile up the Senate over the ascendancy of supposed liberal Sen. Jim Jeffords, R-Vt., to the chair of the Labor and Human Resources Committee, his center-seeking colleagues told him quietly to sit down. Meanwhile, Coats announced a few days later that he would not run for re-election.

Liberal Leanings

And what of the left, or what’s left of it (pun intended)? Will those with liberal leanings stop thrashing about in search of someone to overturn the welfare reform law Clinton signed in late summer? Mrs. Clinton, who commented after the election that she planned to devote time on welfare issues, seems to be searching for something else to grab on to.

In Congress, the left continues to consist of urban Democrats and the independent socialist Rep. Bernard Sanders of Vermont. They know their numbers are dwindling, that the coalitions are all going to be in the middle. There’s where the action and consensus will be. Neither party has enough votes to pass a veto-proof bill.

And the president, for the first time, has new authority to veto line-items in appropriations bills, giving him a powerful role to play in nearly any piece of legislation. If he doesn’t agree with what you’ve done, he can find out what your favorite dam or highway project or post office might be and just strike a line through it when he gets the appropriations bill. Then you can say "bye-bye" to something you and those who elected you wanted.

Cooperative Spirit

So it’s going to be smiles and handshakes all around for a while.

If an early agreement is reached on the budget—done by factoring in the recently discovered 1.1 percent overadjustment in the Consumer Price Index—that part of annual spear-throwing and dueling press conferences could be avoided.

The issues you face, because of congressional face-offs over what the budget agreement is and when it is signed, should be ameliorated in this new era of centrist politics. My guess is that the $3.5 billion increase for education will remain intact. Given every campaigner’s emphasis on education, we may see either a new program or two created but not funded (they won’t tell the public that part). We actually may get a few more dollars for Title I and Pell Grants, the flagship programs of elementary education and postsecondary education, respectively.

It’s hard to imagine any partisan attacks on education, although a recent Republican reaction to an activist Senate Democratic agenda claimed "we still remain a nation at risk" and our "emphasis on fundamentals is still woefully inadequate," even though SAT scores, particularly for minorities, have risen in the past decade.

Alternatively, we could have a Congress and president locking horns again by the end of March, with the month going out like the proverbial lion.

But there’s too much centrism up on The Hill and in the Clinton administration. The youthful "troublemakers" are gone; those who are left have gained a certain amount of electoral wisdom. What remains to be seen is how they will apply it, and how it will affect us.

Nick Penning is AASA Policy Analyst. E-mail: npenning@aasa.org