Everything that is right and wrong in Congress was put on display in its final burst of activity before it yielded the Washington stage to summiteers Bush and Gorbachev.
In their last pre-vacation week, the lawmakers used the negotiating skills that the best of them possess to move along two bills that will pay important dividends in better health, greater opportunity and a fuller life for millions. But then these same folks turned around and indulged their penchant for parochial politics in the interests of their own reelection by festooning an important foreign-aid bill with goodies for their home folks.
Already passed by the Senate, the Clean Air bill and the Americans with Disabilities Act guaranteeing handicapped persons equal rights to compete for jobs and use public facilities were overwhelmingly endorsed by the House. Once conference committees iron out the differences between House and Senate versions, they will be counted as two of the major achievements of this 101st Congress.
Except for the presence of many people in wheelchairs, tourists in the Capitol had few clues that anything unusual was taking place on the May days these bills were on the House floor. Debate was rarely passionate. Most of the disagreements had been negotiated privately long before the bills reached the floor.
That is more often than not the case when complex issues of social policy are being settled, not by executive fiat or judicial decree but, by a large legislative body representing a wide variety of interests and views, which operates by majority rule and instinctively seeks consensus. It is not a process that suits the story-board formulas of television news -- or even the daily deadline requirements of newspapers. But the Clean Air and Disability bills showed how well this protracted, backroom business of legislating can serve the nation.
How do you measure the value to future generations of smog-free cities, nonpolluting cars or rainfall scrubbed of chemicals that kill lakes and trees? How do you calculate the gains for social justice and the overall sense of community -- let alone for the 43 million people immediately affected -- when the protections that past civil-rights bills have provided to minorities are extended to those with disabilities?
When these bills reach the White House, speech writers will find suitable sentiments for President Bush to utter -- and the public will applaud. Those who labored for months or years on these bills will be in the background, dim figures in the Oval Office chorus.
But note what Julie Rovner of Congressional Quarterly wrote about Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), the floor leader on the Disability bill: ''He was ubiquitous during the measure's nine-month trip through the Education and Labor, Energy and Commerce, Public Works and Transportation, and Judiciary committees. He paced like an expectant father at each of the seven subcommittee and full committee markups, and he testified at many of the multitudinous hearings on the bill.'' Although Hoyer has been in Congress for a decade and holds the No. 4 place in the Democratic leadership, it is doubtful that one American in 100 knows his name -- let alone the role he played.
At the center of the Clean Air bill were two equally skillful and nationally unpublicized legislators: Reps. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) and Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), respectively the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee and its health and environment subcommittee. Despite their common party label, these two men are opposites in background and philosophy. They represent constituencies with clashing interests. They have fought epic battles, and they are far from friends, who have come to respect each other. And they were the keys to the agreements that let the House pass this complex legislation with only two days of floor debate and only 21 dissenting votes.
But the bravos must mingle with boos, because this same Congress then turned around and displayed its fatal lack of fiscal discipline. It took a January request from the president for $720 million in emergency aid to the fledgling democracies in Panama and Nicaragua and turned it by May into a $4.3 billion boondoggle of goodies for favorite projects of politicians who serve on or have influence with the Appropriations committees.
Rep. Steve Bartlett (R-Texas), a key ally of Hoyer's on the disability bill, and a few others tried to strip some of the stuffing from the wildly misnamed ''Dire Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Bill,'' but the greed gang beat them on almost every issue.
This kind of experience buttresses Bush's demand for congressional spending reforms as part of any budget agreement. And it explains why critics of Congress find it so easy to lambaste the institution, despite all the competence and craftsmanship it is capable of showing when it lifts its sights beyond the next election.