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Washington Journal: Experts See Modest Gains For Republicans In House

Washington, 30 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Constitution requires an election for each seat in the U.S. House of Representatives every two years, but that does n-o-t mean that each congressional election brings a new House.

In fact, political experts are not expecting much of a change in the composition of the House after Tuesday's general election.

Says Thomas Mann, director of the Governmental Studies Program at the private, non-profit Brookings Institution in Washington, "we frankly do not see any signs of the election tipping to the advantage of one party or the other." He says there are few common themes, and he says the elections are likely to be "low key."

The House of Representatives has 435 members and two dominant political parties -- the Democrats and the Republicans. The Republicans hold 228 seats to 206 for the Democrats, and there is one independent member who has generally voted with the Democrats.

Each of the 50 states is divided into congressional districts. Each district represents about 600,000 people. The number of congressional districts in a state is determined by its population, which is counted every ten years. But each state is guaranteed at least one seat in the House. California, the most populous, has 52. Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming have one member apiece.

The first House session in 1789 had 65 House members. The current size of 435 was fixed by Congress in 1929.

Republican Party National Committee Chairman James Nicholson predicts the Republicans will add between 8-20 seats next week. Congressman John Linder (R-Georgia), the chairman of the Republican campaign committee in the House, expects his party to gain 10-15 seats. Democratic Party leaders are not challenging those assessments in the final runup to the election.

There are a number of factors that favor the Republican Party, some are historic and some are political.

History favors incumbents. According to Congressional Quarterly, the publisher of authoritative data on Congress, about 75 percent of all House members routinely win re-election. And, since 1946, more than 90 percent of House members seeking re-election have retained their seats.

In addition, since the election of 1938, the political party of the president has lost seats in every midterm election -- that is, the election that comes at the middle point of a president's four year term.

President Bill Clinton is a Democrat. His party lost 52 seats and control of the House for the first time in 40 years in the mid-term election of 1994. That was the most sweeping change of political power in Washington in recent U.S. history. Democrats lost a few more seats in the House even when Clinton won re-election in 1996 and experts expect the trend to continue this year.

Just a few days before it adjourned, the Republican-controlled House voted to authorize an investigation to determine whether impeachment proceedings should be brought against Clinton, proceedings that could lead to Clinton's removal from office.

Although the House and the 100-member Senate have equal standing on most matters, impeachment is one of three special powers that the U.S. Constitution granted to the House. The House also has the power to originate all revenue legislation, and to elect a president when the chosen electors in the states are unable to do so.

Experts from both parties do not consider Clinton's predicament to be much of a factor in the congressional elections. Congressman Linder said he never believed that Clinton's political problems would influence the course of the election. Said Linder: "These are local races. For some time I've been saying we gain 10 to 15 seats based on political fundamentals, and I never did believe it was a referendum on Bill Clinton."

A few months ago, some experts thought the scandal at the White House stemming from Clinton's sexual relations with a young former White House assistant named Monica Lewinsky would help to bury Democratic congressional candidates around the country.

Most commentators in the press and political circles believe now that the American voting public has had its fill of the coverage of the affair that helped bring on the impeachment inquiry, and political reporters note that few Republican Party candidates are even mentioning Clinton in their campaigning.

Says the Brookings Institution's Mann:

"Well, we had the impeachment vote and then we had the public reaction to it. There was certainly initially a feeling of potential Republican surge. There was then a sense of a Democratic backlash, and now it seems to have settled down and not be much of a factor at all."

Added Republican Congressman Linder: "We were going to gain seats before anyone ever heard about Monica Lewinsky."

The consensus of opinion is that there is not much interest at all in the congressional elections this year. Of the 435 House seats up for election, 55 Republican incumbents and 39 Democratic incumbents have no opposition. That is the highest number of unopposed House members since 1958. In the southern state of Florida alone, 18 members of the state's 23-member House delegation face no election day opposition.

Congressional Quarterly says that its analysis of all 435 districts shows that 333 seats are considered "safe" for the party that currently holds the seat. Mann says only 58 races are considered "competitive," meaning the vote could go either way.

(Another in RFE/RL's series previewing 1998 general election in U.S.)