The new Congress

Although it will be closely divided, the next US Congress won't be paralyzed to the degree that some observers think.

Although it will be closely divided, the next US Congress won't be paralyzed to the degree that some observers think.

A week after the Nov. 7 elections, it appeared that voters had elected 220 Republicans, 211 Democrats, and three independents to the House of Representatives. One race was still undecided. Several races could be overturned by recounts of ballots.

In the Senate, Republicans had a 50-49 majority, with a Washington state seat still in limbo. Recounts could cause three Senate seats to flip.

The next Senate could easily be tied 50-50. That would give the new vice-president more than a token role in government, since he would break tie votes in that chamber.

The lingering uncertainty about which party will control Congress-not to mention the White House-prompted legislative leaders to defer a "lame duck" session until Dec. 5. Congress still must pass five appropriations bills to keep federal agencies working.

Give and take

A closely split Congress may not be the best recipe for action, but neither is it a recipe for disaster.

For instance, Republicans hold numerical control of the current Congress with majorities of 222-209 in the House (not counting one independent and three vacant seats) and 54-46 in the Senate.

But numeral control does not equate to practical control. Neither house of Congress routinely votes along party lines. On most bills, members cast their votes according to their political philosophy or how the issue would affect their constituents.

The current, divided Congress tackled a wide array of energy issues. It held many oversight hearings and, with difficulty, forged compromises on some bills.

The fact that it did not pass much legislation was not uncommon for a Congress sitting during a term that is concurrent with a presidential election campaign. And for the oil and gas industry, a paucity of new laws isn't necessarily a bad thing anyway.

Committees

As always, the key thing is control of the committees that determine which bills are reported and in what form.

There will be changes in some of the key chairmanships.

Both of the congressional tax writing panels will get new leaders. The defeat of veteran Sen. Bill Roth (R-Del.) will leave the finance committee chair open. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) is in line to get it.

Rep. Bill Archer (R-Tex.), the House ways and means committee chairman, is retiring. The leading contender probably is Bill Thomas (R-Calif.).

The chair of the House commerce committee (which drafts most energy bills) will open with the retirement of Tom Bliley (R-Va.). Key candidates for the job are Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and Michael Oxley (R-Ohio.)

With the Senate so narrowly split, a single vote takes on critical importance, so the health problems of Republicans Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Jesse Helms of North Carolina will be watched closely.

If either vacates his seat before the end of his term, the Democratic governor of his state would name a successor.

Thurmond will be 98 in December. The Petroleum Marketers Association of America noted in its newsletter, "The most important person in DC next year could be Strom Thurmond's physician."

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