Congress, never known for fast starts, is off to a slower beginning than usual this year.
As of Monday, the House will have passed only one major bill, a measure waiving countervailing duties on subsidized imports. The Senate has even less to show for two months of work. Though it has confirmed two nominations and changed its filibuster rule, it has yet to pass a major piece of legislation.
That contrasts with the beginning of the last session in 1977, when the House had passed four major measures by March 12 and the Senate three.
By March 12 of 1977, both houses had passed, and the president had signed, a bill giving the president emergency powers to order natural gas shipments. The House and Senate also had passed a large stimulus package of public works jobs bills, the House had passed a new ethics code and a substantial tax cut bill and the Senate had given the president powers to reorganize the government.
Moreover the number of major bills chugging through committees towards the floor is far smaller this year than at the start of the 95th Congress in '77. By this time in 1977, House and Senate committees were working on a major energy bill, strip mining, clean air and major farm legislation, an oil spill liability bill and a bill to allow more picketing at construction sites, one of the first of several labor bills defeated last session.
This week both the House and Senate are expected to finish work on legislation changing the U.S. relationship with Taiwan, but after that there is not a heavy backlog on the calendar. A bill preserving Alaska's wilderness and one implementing the Panama Canal treaties is moving through House committees. But on other major pieces of legislation, such as hospital cost containment, campaign financing, establishing a Department of Education, and determining how to dispose of nuclear waste, hearings are just getting under way.
While Congress seems to have played around longer with organizational details, such as rules changes and setting up committees, the slow start isn't all Congress' fault.
Part of it has been dictated by the mood of the White House and the country.
Rep. John Brademas (D-Ind.), House majority whip, said three factors account for the slowdown. Because of the emphasis on cutting spending, Congress isn't writing much new legislation. The administration is not "coming out with the flow of legislation it sustained in the last two years," and February snows stranded many members in their districts, slowing Congress "physically and psychologically," Brademas said.
After President Carter's election in 1976, he began his term in office by enthusiastically inundating Congress with proposals on a wide variety of major issues that included tax reform, election reform, water policy, civil service reform, welfare reform, straightening out the Social Security system, setting up a consumer protection agency and canceling the B1 bomber.
Deluged with proposals and not in perfect rapport with the president, Congress began to pick the measures apart, discarding some, passing some, changing others and handing the president some outright defeats on bills such as hospital cost containment.
This year the president, sadder and wiser about the ways of Congress, is sending fewer proposals and concentrating on getting them passed.
Budget-cutting fever is also restraining Congress from passing new programs, particularly if they carry a substantial price tag.
Instead, it is overseeing programs already passed and looking for areas to cut, moves that require no gearing up, but a slow and a careful study of what's been done.
Most of the fights of the first six months will probably be resolved in one bill -- the budget bill setting spending levels and priorities.
As one aide said, "This is the less is more Congress' and people seem to want it that way."