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Congress's Sorry Session

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By David S. Broder
Sunday, October 8, 2006

The disgrace of Congress extends far beyond the scandals that have sullied the record of the dominant House Republicans. They are properly being blamed for most of the misdeeds and blunders that have marked this year on Capitol Hill, from the power grabs by Tom DeLay, to the greed of Duke Cunningham and Bob Ney, to the sexual overtures of Mark Foley.

Those were bad enough, and the glacial pace at which party leaders responded to all of them is a further indictment of the current regime. The House session opened with an attempt to change the rule that would have required an indicted Tom DeLay to step down as majority leader. It finished with Mark Foley hustling off to rehab before he answered questions about his electronic messages to underage male House pages.

And in between, what was accomplished? Nothing of significance on any of the major problems confronting the nation.

That is the real failure and the reason there should be a lot of new faces when the next Congress starts work in January.

Whether the need was immigration reform, a rational energy policy, an effort to expand health insurance coverage or greater security for retirement, Congress failed to deliver.

It worked fewer days -- and accomplished less -- than any Congress in recent history, and much of its routine work on spending bills was postponed until after the election.

The legacy of what it left undone -- especially in the fiscal area -- will damage future generations long after the memories of DeLay and Foley and their follies have vanished.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a bipartisan group of former government officials, expressed dismay last week that Congress had adjourned without adopting a formal budget resolution. Because the House and Senate were unable to agree, the committee's president, Maya MacGuineas, said, "Congress is tasking itself with spending millions of dollars while flying blind. That is no way to run a country."

The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities added up the damage done by this Congress in a end-of-session report: "The 109th Congress took our already large projected budget deficits and passed legislation that will make them larger. The legislation increased projected deficits from 2005 (the year the Congress convened) through 2011 (when the current five-year budget window ends) by a total of $452 billion. Moreover, the budget deterioration over the past six fiscal years -- 2000 to 2006 -- is the largest deterioration for any six-year period in the past half-century."

Stan Collender, an independent budget analyst writing in National Journal, said that this year's failure implies more tough sledding next year. "Combined with the likely narrower margins in Congress next year (regardless of which party is in the majority), this almost guarantees that work on the budget will be slow, halting and painful. It also means that incremental progress may be too much to expect."

Some of the session's failures may be laid at the feet of the minority Democrats, who used parliamentary tactics, particularly in the Senate, to thwart some Republican proposals. But most of the difficulty can be found on the Republican side of the aisle, where ideological differences and simple political resistance proved to be a persistent problem.

It is difficult to remember, but President Bush's first priority after his reelection in 2004 was changing the Social Security system to include privately owned accounts. For the better part of six months, he spoke everywhere about his plan -- but he never got around to introducing legislation. And every time he tried to drum up support for some version of the scheme, the word came back from the Capitol that Republicans were not prepared to vote for any such idea. In the end, Social Security reform never came to a vote in any committee of the House or Senate, let alone reached the floor. The Republicans simply chickened out.

The record on immigration was not much better. The House passed a punitive bill that would have closed the border and clamped down on illegal immigrants already living here. The Senate followed the president's wishes and approved a more generous and comprehensive approach, including a guest worker program and a difficult but manageable path to citizenship for those residing here illegally.

But House and Senate leaders never ordered the negotiations that might have led to agreement on a final bill, so in the end, little was accomplished.

That was the hallmark of this Congress. We have to do better.

davidbroder@washpost.com


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