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The Participants

Richard E. Cohen, 49, has been a congressional reporter for National Journal since 1977. In that position he writes about legislative and electoral politics and deals regularly with a broad cross-section of members of Congress. He joined the magazine's staff in 1973. He was the 1990 winner of the Everett McKinley Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting on Congress.

In addition to his magazine work, Cohen is an active author of books about Congress. Currently, he is working on a biography of former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, the long-time chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. His previous titles include Washington at Work: Back Room and Clean Air, on the enactment of the 1990 Clean Air Act.

Burdett Loomis is currently a professor of political science at the University of Kansas. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1974, served as an American Political Science Congressional Fellow in 1975-76, and has taught at the University of Kansas since 1979.

At present, Loomis is at work (with Professor Darell West of Brown University) on The Sound Of Money, a book that will examine lobbying efforts on high profile issues such as health care and telecommunications.

Richard Cohen: Hi. Burdett. Rich Cohen, here at National Journal East.

Burdett Loomis: Hi Rich, What's the forecast for the Republican House this week, given the Newt "charm initiative? Bird

Richard Cohen: Well, it's interesting. Three weeks ago, Newt made a suggestion that probably made sense for the budget debate and won some applause from editorialists etc., but it made conservative Republicans unhappy. This week, he made the conservatives happy but he has made the budget discussions more difficult--and opened himself to Democratic criticism. That's the nature of things, I guess, given 1) the narrow Republican majority, and 2) Newt's uncertain status.

Burdett Loomis: Is this a recipe for gridlock, or is there the possibility of working from the center (eg, Blue Dogs) and building a coalition? Or does the Gephardites and the conservative R presence combine to make this a nonstarter

Richard Cohen: The glib reporter answer is "We don't know" because we have no experience with these dynamics. More to the point, however: It seems pretty clear that a budget deal would have to be struck in the center and that conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats would be left out. I don't see how it could be done without Gingrich. I can see how it could be done without Gephardt. But Clinton and Gephardt would need to make that judgment--both separately and collectively. What do you think?

Burdett Loomis: My sense is that it will be very tough, based on the narrow margins and the political forces that inhabit the bulk of both legislative parties. Still, given that both Gingrich and Clinton have ethics problems to deal with, there might be political hay in reaching -- or trying to -- a substantive compromise. But there's a lot of heavy lifting to be done between folks who don't trust each other much.

Richard Cohen: Agree. And if there is a budget deal, it's been clear to me for some time that it won't happen until the fall, at the earliest. Meanwhile, the posturing will continue.
A related point: I think that it's become apparent in the past week (and people are starting to talk...) that other congressional Republicans need to get into the act, with committee hearings, proposals etc. It's not healthy, wise or practical for Republicans to continue to look to Newt for all of their ideas or momentum. They can't blame him for all their problems. They have some responsibility for themselves, in other words. No?

Burdett Loomis: That gets us to a kind of political sciency question -- the relative importance of committees and parties as moving forces in the Congress. It strikes me that the Livingstons, Kasichs, Archers et all of the majority, as chairs, have a lot more running room this year -- maybe reminiscent of the relationship between the Dem leadership and the major chairs (eg, Dingell) in the 102nd-103rd Congresses.

Richard Cohen: I agree. They do have the running room. But I think that they have been slow to exercise it, so to speak. Reasons include: 1) Newt's domination in 1995; 2) Their sense of being burned (as a party) in 1996. 3) Still some feeling out by Republicans in learning how to act as a majority, for example, in running committees. 4) Plus, some ambiguity about their agenda--for example, the continuing conflict between Ways and Means Bill Archer, who favors a national sales tax in place of the income tax, and Majority Leader Dick Armey, who wants a "flat" income tax.
So, there are a lot of these problems (plus the narrow majority). But it's time for them to get their act together. One final point: Perhaps, we are gaining a greater appreciation for the achievements of the Democratic chairmen in their time--plus, an understanding of when/why they failed.

Burdett Loomis: Right, re the Dem chairs. Plus, so far we have -- in the great tradition of congress scholars --ignored the Senate. How does the Senate affect the calculus here? Lott tried to both lower and raise expectations the other day, but I get the sense that he faces many of the same problems that Gingrich does, plus the additional liability of needing 60 votes on key issues to overcome a filibuster.

Richard Cohen: Right...in the grand tradition of both academicians and many (non-TV) journalists, that is. I do think that Sen. Lott himself and many who observe the Senate got more than a bit carried away early this year about how much running room he has. The Senate remains--at the risk of stating the obvious--an institution that is VERY difficult to run, under the best of circumstances. And, given Trent Lott's relatively few years and the way in which he became Majority Leader, it's reasonable to expect that it will take some time (months? years?) before he gets settled and relationships are established. It's interesting, for example, that conservatives now are grumbling criticisms of his "centrism," as they used to do with Bob Dole. And, finally, I do believe that the House remains the logical (and constitutional) place to initiate much legislation, especially on spending and taxes.
Maybe, you can tell us what we have been learning lately about Bob Dole's leadership skills and achievements...?

Burdett Loomis: Well, Senate leaders are --by definition -- singular, but I do think that Lott does demonstrate the inherent limitations on both style and substance. Re Dole, I think that we can see that he was a more decisive Senate leader than candidate or even private citizen. Still we in Kansas have not forgotten him -- his papers are coming to KU, and there's going to be a big "Welcome Home Bob" celebration April 25 in Lawrence.

Richard Cohen: That sounds like a good time out there in Lawrence. I trust that many of our guests read in the past day that Sen. Dole has signed up for a new job here with a law firm. No lobbying, he says. But he will be working with clients at a firm with former Sens. Mitchell and Bentsen. That's the way Washington works, I guess.
...In spite of all the talk about campaign finance reform etc., there is no sign that we will see change any time soon in such matters, either on Capitol Hill or off.

Burdett Loomis: Rich -- one last question/comment. Do you see any real chance for significant campaign reform this year -- or this Congress? It strikes me that the levels of cynicism -- both within the Congress and within the public, although for different reasons, perhaps. Can anything, short of a huge scandal, prompt some change? Good "chatting" w/ you , Rich.

Richard Cohen: Well, it's certainly not promising in terms of the prospects for campaign-finance reform. For the next several months, at least, the focus will be on investigations. After that, there could be some new legislative ideas. For now, there clearly does not seem much opportunity for bipartisan consensus.
Perhaps, though, some of our readers will have some useful thoughts that they can share with the powers-that-be.
I, too, have enjoyed this. And I hope that we--and others--will have additional opportunities.
Take care...

Burdett Loomis: Indeed. So long from the Midwest Pol Science Convention in Chicago.