Another Contrary Congress

This essay was originally published in the November 3, 1980 issue of Time Magazine, which can be viewed online here

Most incumbents will return, but more contentious than ever

The current Congress has been one of the most quarrelsome and rebellious ever faced by a President. The Congress that will emerge from next week’s elections will probably not be much different. Once again, Democrats are almost certain to retain control of both chambers, as they have for all but four years since Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932. Leaders of both parties predict that the Republicans will score a net gain of twelve to 20 seats in the House and two or three in the Senate. But once again, whoever wins the White House will most likely find Congress in the same contrary and independent mood that has confronted Jimmy Carter for almost four years.

For one thing, the presidential nominees are expected to have very short coattails, nearly all House and Senate members will have to win on their own. Indeed, some popular candidates may even help Carter or Ronald Reagan take closely contested states. Thus few members of the 97th Congress will have any electoral debts to pay to the occupant of the Oval Office. Moreover, most Representatives and Senators still regard Carter, even near the end of his first term, as an outsider; Reagan would initially not be treated much differently.

Still, the next Congress will not be a carbon copy of its predecessor. Even if the Democrat vs. Republican lineup does not change much, congressional observers expect the outlook of both chambers to shift considerably to the right. Many Democrats, including liberals, have tried to keep pace with the conservative tide in the electorate. In addition, some prominent liberals may be defeated. Thus the next Congress may resist new spending programs, except on defense, and be more willing to strengthen agencies like the CIA.

The Democrats’ nimble-footed move to the right is particularly galling for Republicans, who expected to benefit from the country’s deepening conservative mood. A few months ago, G.O.P. leaders spoke euphorically of winning control of the Senate and perhaps even the House. Now they talk more soberly of winning control of the Senate in 1984 and the House at some time in the distant future.

The congressional elections are once again demonstrating the power of incumbency, which mostly helps the Democrats because they outnumber Republicans 59 to 41 in the Senate and 216 to 159 in the House. Members are boasting openly about funneling federal funds into their districts, while assuring voters that they are eliminating waste in other areas of the budget. Incumbents also benefit from a paradox: while voters consistently seem to distrust Congress as a whole, they usually admire their own legislators. Thus North Dakota’s veteran G.O.P. Congressman Mark Andrews is considered a shoo-in for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Republican Milton Young. Says a disgruntled Democrat: “Andrews and God occupy the same niche here.” Of the House incumbents, 51 have no opponent, scores face only token opposition, and 95% are expected to be reelected.

It is still too early to tell if the Republicans’ biggest gamble will pay off: namely, an all-out effort to unseat the House Democratic leaders. Republicans thought they discerned substantial erosion in the Democratic elders’ home bases, and indeed some weakness has been exposed. Acknowledges House Speaker Tip O’Neill: “The people who put them in Congress in the first place are no longer around. Their organizations are not there.”

Almost every Democratic leader is sweating out the campaign, and a few may go down to defeat, including House Democratic Whip John Brademas of Indiana. His opponent, Republican Businessman John Hiler, is working the factory gates for the blue-collar vote in a district that includes Elkhart County, where unemployment is nearly 16%. Trailing 12 points in the polls, Brademas is pouring tens of thousands of dollars into a media blitz that attacks Hiler as a tool of Big Oil because he opposes the windfall-profits tax. In Texas, House Majority Leader Jim Wright is in the toughest fight of his career against Jim Bradshaw, a former city council member in Fort Worth who has been aided by a surge in voter registration in traditionally Republican precincts. Democratic Congressman Morris Udall appeared to be moving past Richard Huff, Republican real estate millionaire, until Udall revealed that he is suffering from Parkinson’s disease, thus injecting another uncertainty into the Arizona race.

Some of the Senate’s leading liberals are also targeted and may or may not survive. In South Dakota, George McGovern has cut Republican James Abdnor’s early lead by aggressive campaigning.

Idaho’s Frank Church is also pushing hard to hold off his Republican opponent, Steve Symms, while Colorado’s Gary Hart is in a cliffhanger with Republican Secretary of State Mary Estill Buchanan. (Another woman candidate for the Senate, Democrat Elizabeth Holtzman, seems headed for victory in New York.)

The Abscam scandal threatens to remove a few incumbents from heretofore safe seats. Democrat Michael (“Ozzie”) Myers of Philadelphia, who was expelled from the House after his Abscam bribery conviction, is expected to lose to Tom Foglietta, a former G.O.P. city councilman who is running as an independent. South Carolina Congressman John Jenrette, also convicted in Abscam, is depending on his popularity among rural blacks to win his tight race against Republican Lawyer John Napier.

As usual, there could be some upsets in the making. Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, ailing and infirm, is being pressed by Democrat Bill Schulz, who is almost as conservative but healthier and younger (71 vs. 49). Georgia Senator Herman Talmadge, who was denounced by the Senate for financial misconduct was thought to be unbeatable in a state that has not had a Republican Senator since 1873, but he is now a mere points ahead of Challenger Mack Mattingly. It will be a long election night for many.

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