As Congress Winds Up Work,
Legislative Casualties Mount
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 5, 1998; Page A04
First it was the major tobacco legislation that went up in smoke and then a vigorously debated campaign finance reform bill was smothered in the Senate. A measure enhancing the president's hand in trade negotiations crashed in the House for the second time, while a widely touted initiative to regulate managed health care plans has been left hanging.
Even a major election-year tax cut is in serious doubt.
Everywhere on Capitol Hill, the legislative road kill is piling up as the 105th Congress struggles to wind up work by next weekend, forgoing accomplishments in favor of issues to champion in this fall's congressional campaigns.
Casualties are always heavy at the end of a Congress as time runs out and election pressures mount. But rarely has there been so much legislative carnage spread over so broad a political terrain and affecting both parties.
"Never seen anything like it," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who has spent nearly a quarter-century in the Senate. "It's generally acknowledged that it's never been like this since Watergate in terms of business not getting done," added Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
The wreckage has been especially pronounced in the Senate, where rules, personalities and political imperatives have combined to create a lose-lose situation in which both parties can block each other's bills but neither can pass much on its own.
It was the Republican majority that successfully blocked Democratic or bipartisan initiatives to ratify a national tobacco settlement and curb teenage smoking, to overhaul campaign fund-raising laws and to raise the minimum wage another $1. But Democrats also torpedoed a similarly wide array of Republican initiatives, from abortion restrictions to accelerated development of a national missile defense system.
In different ways, both parties blame the furor over President Clinton's affair with former intern Monica S. Lewinsky and the Republicans' efforts to impeach him, which has crowded out consideration of nearly everything else when Congress returned after Labor Day.
"The firestorm over the president has sucked all the oxygen out of the room," said McCain, who had his share of losing causes this year, including a final showdown over his campaign finance legislation. "Without attention from the media, it was hard to focus [on anything else] and it was hard to get the two parties to negotiate." Lawmakers "aren't feeling the pressure to do anything."
Democrats agree that Washington's preoccupation with scandal -- including earlier GOP probes into Democratic fund-raising practices in the 1996 presidential campaign -- has obscured most other issues. But they blame Republican tactics more than Clinton's transgressions. "Republican leaders of the House and Senate decided they'd concentrate on investigations at the expense of legislation," complained Leahy. "Republicans decided things were going their way, so why do anything," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.).
But the legislative slump began long before the impeachment drive began, dating to last year's balanced budget and tax-cut deal between the Republicans and the White House.
Ironically, settlement of the decades-long struggle over budget and tax policy may have contributed to Congress's subsequent troubles by substantially reducing the stock of resolvable issues and straining lawmakers' capacity for compromise, according to some members.
"With the balanced budget agreement, a lot of what needed to be done was done, and people then scattered off onto other newer issues for which consensus has not yet developed," said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.).
Another factor is the tenuous hold that Republicans have on both chambers of Congress.
With a margin of only 11 votes, House Republicans are vulnerable to defections arising out of dissension in their own ranks on many social and fiscal issues. Republicans have a proportionately larger 55 to 45 edge in the Senate but must rely on Democratic defections to reach the supermajority of 60 votes needed to break filibusters, which proved ever more difficult to achieve as Democrats pulled together in response to escalating partisan tensions.
As a result, Republican initiatives became harder to pass in both chambers, especially in the Senate. And, barring the kind of groundswell that helped pass minimum wage and health care legislation two years ago, Democrats were limited to blocking Republican bills rather than passing their own.
Strategy for this fall's campaign also played a big role for both parties.
Republicans needed to fire up their conservative base -- with issues such as tax cuts, abortion curbs and tax breaks for private schools -- for what was otherwise likely to be a low-turnout election. Democrats needed broader issues such as curbing teenage smoking, protecting managed-care patients and hiring more teachers to give voters a reason to turn to them. There was little common ground here, and many on both sides believed there was more to be gained politically by losing defiantly than by cutting a deal.
This does not mean that the session is a bust. Congress recently added a reauthorization of higher education programs to bills passed earlier in the year that pumped new money into road and transit construction and protected taxpayers from abuses by the Internal Revenue Service. In addition, the Senate approved expansion of NATO to include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
One way or the other, the government will be funded for the new fiscal year. There are fair-to-good prospects for last-minute passage of legislation to modernize the rules for banks, securities firms and other financial services, to overhaul consumer bankruptcy laws and to restrict state taxes on the Internet. Long-delayed legislation to revamp public housing laws to include more lower-middle-income families is moving toward passage as part of an appropriations bill. Compromises have been reached to expand immigration for skilled workers and to impose sanctions on countries that engage in religious persecution.
But most of the grand-marquee issues are long gone or fading fast.
Anti-smoking legislation, arising out of an earlier agreement between state attorneys general and the tobacco industry, appeared likely to be the hallmark of the session as the year unfolded. But after it failed in the Senate, House Republicans dropped plans to offer a slimmed-down and less controversial measure.
Legislation to regulate health maintenance organizations (HMOs) and other managed-care plans became the next rage. The House passed a bill, but Senate Republicans tried to fend off the Democrats' original initiative with a milder version of their own. The result has been a standoff. Democrats keep trying to offer their plan as an amendment to other legislation, only to have GOP leaders pull the bill out from under them. Democrats plan another attempt this week, without much hope of succeeding.
The House passed a bill to tighten campaign finance rules, including restrictions on unregulated "soft money" contributions, but the Senate twice failed to muster the 60 votes needed to cut off a Republican filibuster.
The House failed in two attempts, including one last month, to give the president "fast track" authority to negotiate trade agreements that could not be amended by Congress, which free traders regard as critical to negotiating new agreements.
Both parties are still pushing their starkly conflicting education initiatives, so far to no avail.
While savoring Democratic defeats on the minimum wage and other issues, Senate Republicans failed to get the supermajorities needed to override Clinton's veto of a bill to ban certain late-term abortions and to pass legislation to discourage out-of-state abortions for minors. The missile defense bill also narrowly failed. And House-passed legislation to cut taxes by $80 billion over five years hangs by a thread in the Senate, opposed by some Republicans as well as all or nearly all Democrats.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company