Archive for Sunday, August 5, 2001

Congress hasn’t mastered compromise

August 5, 2001


— The president and Congress have left town for the long August break with few things accomplished and a long list of important goals still to be reached. There's blame enough to embarrass both parties if they were capable of embarrassment. And there's one clear lesson both sides need to learn if they want to improve on their record when they return for the final three months of the session.

Don't overreach.

After an election in which the country split its votes right down the middle, it should be obvious that compromise is the order of the day. But neither side has learned that lesson.

Bush was the first to flunk the test. He devoted himself single-mindedly at the start of his term to exhorting Congress to pass the tax cut for which he had campaigned relentlessly across the country and to do it before he or anyone else knew what the cost of paying for his own programs would be.

From the day he lost the primary in New Hampshire, one of the most tax-averse states in the union, to John McCain by a staggering 19 points, it has been clear that the public shared McCain's view that a massive tax cut would threaten the hard-earned solvency of the federal government.

But Bush would have it his way, so he dragooned the congressional Republicans into going along. And what has he gotten for his troubles? Well, he lost Jim Jeffords, whose defection turned the Senate over to the Democrats. And he lost the resources he will need to finance his dreams of reforming the Pentagon and the Social Security system.

Just as significantly, he lost the credibility required to discipline congressional spending. When Rep. James Walsh of New York, the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that handles the budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, had to resort to the desperation tactic of cutting the already inadequate funds for public housing in order to give Bush $200 million for his campaign promise to subsidize home purchase downpayments, every member of Congress said to himself, "Well, if Bush can get his project funded, I'm going to get mine."

And the public still doesn't buy it. Interviewing voters in Seabrook and Stoddard, N.H., last week, I heard comments that confirmed our latest Washington Post poll findings: Only three out of eight in the poll think the tax cut will help the economy. A majority thinks it will make it impossible to finance education, health care and Social Security adequately without deficit spending. As Warren Williams, a retired Army careerist, told me, "I don't think much of the (tax cut) idea. ... Some day this country has to pay its debt. We're going to need that money."

Another example of a Bush overreach was his insistence on including oil drilling in the Alaskan wilderness area as part of his energy plan. He got it through the House on Wednesday by 17 votes. But months ago, Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, the most pro-Bush of Democrats, especially on energy issues, told the president the Senate would never approve it. Still, Bush keeps butting his head against the wall.

Democrats are equally guilty. When they took over the Senate, the first thing they did was to ram through a patients' bill of rights measure that opens the door to so much expensive litigation that Bush said he would never sign it. The liability features are marginal to the central purpose of assuring that people get the treatment they need from HMO doctors, but the Democrats (and their trial lawyer backers) were stubbornly insistent on having it their way.

The result is continued partisan warfare over a measure where everyone says there is nearly complete agreement on all but the liability issues. Reasonable people would put those lawsuit issues aside for later, if they are needed, and pass the rest of the bill. But not the Democrats.

Now they are threatening to do the same thing with legislation to provide federal help in cleaning up the defects in our election system that became so apparent in Florida last November but can be found in almost every state. A reasonable thing, as recommended by the Carter-Ford bipartisan commission, would be for the federal government to offer financial and technical help to states that design programs to modernize their voting systems and assure that all ballots are counted fairly.

But Democrats are rallying behind a bill that goes much farther one that mandates specific standards and practices and orders the states to comply. That approach is opposed by state election officials of both parties and will never pass the House. But that doesn't stop these Democrats.

And that is why so little gets done.

David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.