'Congress Has a Rendezvous With Obscurity'
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 16, 1999; Page A1
The T-shirts trumpeted "Tax Cuts: A Home Run for America." The signs promised "Real Tax Relief for Taxpaying Americans." The buttons warned "Don't Let Washington Spend My Tax Cut!" And as the cameras rolled, congressional Republicans produced yet another political prop: their 216-page tax cut plan, in its last public appearance before heading to veto oblivion.
The Republicans finally forwarded their doomed $792 billion tax cut to the White House yesterday, doggedly heralding this exercise in legislative futility with the latest in a series of nearly identical campaign-style rallies. The Democrats held a strangely familiar event, too, with Vice President Gore proudly declaring what everyone already knew: that the GOP plan is "dead on arrival." Needless to say, nothing got passed into law.
This has been the unbending routine on Capitol Hill this year: a surplus of partisan posturing, a deficit of bipartisan achievement. To be sure, Congress is always a political place, but many experts already describe the 106th Congress as utterly dysfunctional; for a nonelection year, they say, the level of partisan silliness may be unprecedented.
Members of Congress and analysts tick off many reasons for the depressingly early dawning of campaign season: the unusually huge stakes of the 2000 election, the razor-thin GOP majority in the House, the president's diminished credibility, the lack of urgency created by national prosperity. But whatever the reason, members on both sides of the aisle are now warning about a budget "train wreck" after passing a grand total of only 39 bills into law this year, 34 of them on routine matters decided by voice vote. That includes nine bills to rename federal buildings, and three reappointing regents of the Smithsonian.
"This Congress has a rendezvous with obscurity," said Claremont McKenna College professor John Pitney, a congressional historian. "There's always posturing in Washington, but this is really amazing for an odd-numbered year."
Congress has gotten some work done over the last nine months. It has enacted a must-pass bill limiting liability for lawsuits filed over Y2K problems, a Peace Corps reauthorization, emergency funding for the Kosovo war, a bill giving states more flexibility with education funds, and a nonbinding resolution proposing a missile defense system "as soon as it is technologically possible." It has also completed work on two of its annual budget bills.
But the supposed deadline for congressional budget work is two weeks away, and 11 other bills are still unfinished. Meanwhile, major efforts to overhaul the nation's banking system, reform juvenile justice and pass new restrictions on managed-care firms appear stalled. The Senate has confirmed only 17 judges; there are still 63 vacancies on the federal bench.
"I've been here 25 years, and I've never seen this place so ineffective," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). "Three months before an election, sure, then you focus on partisan issues. But the election is so far away, and nobody seems to want to govern."
Democratic leaders are already squawking about the "do-nothing Congress," accusing GOP leaders of running out the clock in anticipation of a George W. Bush presidency instead of working with them to pass compromise legislation now. Republicans blame gridlock on the "do-nothing Democrats," complaining that House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) have persuaded their caucuses that blocking GOP initiatives will help them take back Congress next year. Moderates from both parties grouse that their leaders seem more eager to frame campaign issues and draw electoral distinctions than pass actual laws.
"It's pretty frustrating for those of us who actually want to get things done," said Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.). "I'm not impressed by the inflexibility on either side. It's a real shame, and it's a collective shame."
Most Congress-watchers say the main cause of the slowdown is that for the first time since the early 1950s, control of the presidency, the House and even the Senate-and by extension, the Supreme Court-could all be up for grabs next year. Both parties see a chance to end divided government, so in Hillese, everyone is trying to play "mistake-free ball." This phenomenon is especially intense in the House, where a tiny five-vote majority has made it almost impossible for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to push major legislation without fracturing his ideologically diverse caucus and risking humiliating defeats.
With all three branches of government "in play," neither side wants to blunt potential campaign issues by letting the other side share credit for addressing them. So Republicans have refused to compromise on smaller tax cuts, while Democrats have held fast to an agenda that includes strict gun control, sweeping restrictions on HMOs, broad campaign finance reform, funding for 100,000 new teachers, and a significant increase in the minimum wage.
"It's like a Powerball lottery with a huge jackpot; the stakes are just abnormally high next year," said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers. "So this business of going for issues instead of passing legislation has really become a political epidemic."
There are other reasons Congress has focused on 2000 so far in advance. For one thing, the presidential race is already in full swing; the much-lamented "permanent campaign" that has emerged of late may make what Baker calls "early-onset posturing" inevitable. And this year, the anointing of Bush as an out-of-nowhere favorite has prompted Democrats to try to link him to congressional Republicans, who in turn have been desperate to avoid damaging him. Meanwhile, the increased involvement of leaders such as Gephardt, Hastert and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) in party fund-raising has heightened their awareness of 2000.
Then there is the problem of the lame-duck president, a problem that has been intensified by the peculiar mix of fear and loathing that many Republicans feel for Bill Clinton. On a personal level, many of them seem genuinely disgusted by the idea of sitting across a table from the man they tried to impeach, which does not exactly enhance the prospects of a deal on taxes, Medicare or Social Security. And on a political level, Clinton has outfoxed them in the court of public opinion so often that they assume anything he offers must have a catch.
Finally, there is the "problem" of the politics of good times. America is not at war. It is not in recession. Farm prices are quite low, and HMOs are often unpopular, and the recent outbreak of school shootings has been very disturbing, but it is hard to deny that most Americans are pretty content these days. So there isn't much pressure on Washington to act.
"There's just a confluence of forces that has everyone drawing these lines in the sand," said Brookings Institution senior fellow Thomas Mann. "The day after the last election, they were already thinking about the next election."
Still, the session is young. Clinton might decide that he needs a grand budget deal on Social Security and Medicare to enhance his legacy. The GOP leadership might decide that a deal with the Democrats over HMOs-or even campaign finance reform-would help them more than an ugly stalemate that could make them look bad in 2000. In fact, while Congress has traditionally done more work in odd-numbered years, some members believe the pressure of the upcoming elections might actually spur their leaders to work together next year.
Rep. Greg Ganske, an Iowa Republican who is working with Democrats on patients' rights legislation that has been throttled by GOP leaders, recalls that President Clinton had a change of heart and signed the GOP welfare reform bill during the 1996 campaign. Maybe, Ganske said, his party leaders will do the same thing on managed care.
"Obviously, everyone's playing politics for 2000; that's the nature of the beast," Ganske said. "But you know, the heat is going to build on some of these issues. Maybe that will get someone to do something."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company