Return to Stalemate

Wednesday, September 6, 2006

AFTER ITS five-week summer break, Congress is back in town, but not for long: It's scheduled just 19 working days between now and the November election. Not a lot of time to accomplish much, but with this Congress there's little danger of that in any event. Indeed, two of the supposed must-do items on the congressional agenda -- lobbying reform and immigration -- have all but disappeared. Republican leaders must be gambling that voters are too forgetful to remember about the first, and too dumb to know who to blame for inaction on the second.

In the case of immigration, the gulf between the House and Senate bills is so huge that stalemate may be the only -- and at this point in the political cycle, the best -- option. Yet the underlying problem of millions of people living and working illegally in this country remains, and it cries out for a comprehensive solution that would address border security, the status of illegal immigrants and the demand for foreign workers.

Having helped rile up their voters about the dangers of porous borders, Republicans now have little answer to the obvious question: Why can't the party in charge at the White House and in both houses of Congress do something about it? Blaming Democratic obstructionism isn't going to work here, because the division over the right course is within the party itself, and between the draconian House bill on the one hand and the sensible, bipartisan solution produced by the Senate, and supported by President Bush, on the other.

A promising, albeit risky, framework for progress has been presented by Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) in the form of an enforcement-first but ultimately comprehensive program. It's a shame that congressional leaders apparently don't plan even to try to see whether the Pence-Hutchison long shot might actually work -- and that President Bush has gone silent on what had been a signature issue. As Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), told the New York Times, "if there's not legislation with Republicans in charge, there's going to be blame here, and justifiable blame, if we do not produce a bill."

The blame would be, if anything, even more justifiable in the case of lobbying reform. This unpleasant topic -- unpleasant, that is, to lawmakers who have become accustomed to fancy meals, lavish trips and ever-flowing campaign contributions, all provided by lobbyists -- was always something that most members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, would have preferred to see disappear. They were only prodded, reluctantly, into action -- or, more accurately, the semblance of action -- by the Jack Abramoff scandal and the belief that disgusted voters wouldn't tolerate more business as usual.

The Senate passed an inadequate version of lobbying reform and the House an even more tepid measure. The result has been -- you guessed it -- a stalemate that leaders may now try to paper over with some rule changes to limit the abuse of earmarks for pet spending projects. Leaders may think that window dressing will be enough to mollify their constituents. We hope that voters will not be so quickly fooled or easily distracted.

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