LAST FRIDAY, the members of the United States Senate, summoned from across the country for the lame-duck session, could not find anything to do. Lots of bills have been reported out of committee, but Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the majority whip, said he was having trouble finding any to call up. Appropriations bills, the continuing resolution and the gas tax were not ready; and senators had placed holds on virtually every other significant piece of legislation.
If that seems a sin against efficiency and majority rule, it is also a sign that the Senate is doing its job. We are not exactly friends of the filibuster. But you have to say that compared with what it might otherwise have been doing, the Senate made good use of its time by listening, as it did for half an hour, to Minority Leader Robert Byrd recount the history of the Senate from 1833 to 1840. Most bills that could be called up have very special constituencies -- often ones that have been generous campaign contributors -- seeking special favors. Doctors, beer wholesalers, and shipping companies all want exemption from enforcement of antitrust laws. Apple Computer wants a double tax deduction. The United Auto Workers want to prevent consumers from buying inexpensive foreign-assembled cars. The state of Alaska, flush with oil revenues, wants a gift of the federally owned Alaska Railroad. Against these special claims, Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) has placed holds on these and other bills, and he has been joined by other senators on some of them. And Mr. Metzenbaum has announced he is prepared to filibuster and offer literally hundreds of amendments if the bills are brought up.
So far they haven't been: in the first of three planned weeks of the lame-duck session, none of these measures passed the Senate.
One obnoxious measure did pass the House, however: the exemption of doctors and other professional groups from regulation by the Federal Trade Commission. The House acted over the objections of FTC Chairman James Miller, a Reagan appointee, and rejected, 208-195, an amendment supported by two respected senior members who are usually on opposite sides of economic issues, James Broyhill (R-N.C.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.).
No one, of course, can tell you exactly why any given legislator voted one way or the other. But we think it's instructive that, according to figures compiled by Common Cause, the members who voted against this compromise received an average of $10,875 from the American Medical and Dental Association PACs over the past four years, and the members who voted for the compromise received a much lower $4,352. Since the AMA's PAC contributes to almost every incumbent, these figures suggest that the size of the contributions tended to be an incentive or a reward for voting the AMA's way. We have no reason to say that anyone is doing anything illegal here. But congressmen who believe that the public is overly cynical about its lawmakers and its government should ponder the lesson people are going to draw from facts like these. On issues of great concern to a well-organized economic group and of minor interest to the general public, it certainly looks like Congress is up for sale.