Archive for Sunday, July 30, 2000

Odds for major legislative achievements dwindling

July 30, 2000


— Congress has just 23 scheduled work days left in a year marked by modest achievement but plenty of political positioning.

For the most part, the goals that President Clinton and the Republican-led Congress proclaimed at the beginning of 2000 remain unfulfilled. They are divided on new prescription drug benefits for Medicare recipients, expanded rights for managed care patients, broad tax cuts, major improvements for schools and a sweeping overhaul of campaign finance laws.

Everyone has an interest in making themselves look like the good guy and the other guy look like the bad guy.Gary Copeland, a University of Oklahoma political scientist who studies Congress

Deals unattainable in the first seven months of the year seem unlikely to jell in September. With the calendar short, the issues complex and the White House, House and Senate all up for grabs, both parties have compelling reasons to draw contrasts and deny each other achievements to boast about.

"Everyone has an interest in making themselves look like the good guy and the other guy look like the bad guy," Gary Copeland, a University of Oklahoma political scientist who studies Congress, said Friday after lawmakers adjourned until Sept. 5.

During the 1996 presidential campaign, Clinton and Congress shook hands on a revamped welfare system, expanded health care access for millions of people, a minimum wage increase and new clean water laws.

At the time, Republicans were busily rehabilitating their image just months after two government shutdowns, and Clinton wanted some bragging points for his own re-election. While many Republicans still want to be seen as pragmatic, capable of getting things done, and Clinton would like some accomplishments for his legacy, the dynamic for cooperation is weaker now.

Stark differences

In fact, both sides have spent much energy this year spotlighting their differences.

Congress has sent Clinton one bill cutting taxes for millions of married couples and is ready to send him another eliminating the federal estate tax, knowing he will veto both. Democrats have pushed relentlessly for gun control, prescription drug benefits and campaign finance laws, aware a deal is unlikely.

"They seem to have a lot of wedge issues they are using to attempt to defeat incumbents in the other party," said James Thurber, an American University political scientist.

On some popular issues, each party has tried muffling partisan differences by offering milder versions of the other side's priorities. Republicans have pushed through the House a more modest package of drug benefits than Clinton wants, while Democrats offered a version of marriage tax relief that was smaller and more limited than the GOP's plan.

So far this year, Clinton and Congress have enacted laws cutting taxes on many working Social Security recipients, making electronic signatures legally binding and forcing some secretive political groups to report campaign contributions.

They are also likely to use most of this year's projected $232 billion budget surplus to reduce the national debt, though that is caused more by political gridlock about how to use that money than by a preference for debt reduction.

Common ground

Agreement seems likely on several other fronts. These include establishing permanent, normal trade relations with China; eliminating the 3 percent federal tax on telephone service; a bipartisan drive for tax breaks and other help for economically struggling neighborhoods; and perhaps raising the minimum wage.

But neither party has made a serious effort to reinforce Social Security or Medicare for the approaching retirement of the 76 million-strong baby boom generation. With few politicians ready to endorse tax increases or benefit cuts that such an effort would likely entail, most have spent the year endorsing cosmetic approaches that include using both programs' trust funds for debt reduction.

Much of the remaining 23 days will be consumed as Congress and Clinton wrangle about their must-pass spending business.

Just one of the 13 annual spending bills for the coming fiscal year has been signed. A second, a $288 billion defense package, is heading to Clinton for his likely approval. Once done, that will leave 11 packages to be completed, totaling almost $600 billion, or one-third of the federal budget.

These bills face bitter battles about money for hiring teachers, repairing schools and purchasing land for parks, as well as provisions blocking White House efforts to sue the tobacco industry and help abortion-rights efforts overseas. As a result, eight face administration veto threats, underlining how both sides are using the spending fight to highlight differences.

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