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Archive for Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Partisanship impedes Congress’ progress

October 23, 2002

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— Rather than characterize the record of the now-departed Congress, let me begin by reporting what the people's representatives and senators did and did not do on their final day in session.

The good news: The Senate, without debate or dissent, approved a House-passed bill reaffirming that the words "under God" shall remain in the Pledge of Allegiance. You may recall that a federal court in California ruled last June that those words violated the constitutional separation of church and state. The same court immediately stayed its ruling, pending an appeal, but our vigilant lawmakers were not about to take any chances. For good measure, they reaffirmed that "In God we trust" remains the national motto.

The bad news: Congress quit without passing 11 of the 13 regular appropriations bills, leaving major parts of the government on autopilot at least until Nov. 22 and blocking a variety of important security and domestic initiatives. Congress is supposed to come back after the election and finish up that most basic of its responsibilities, but don't bet on it.

This Congress the little engine that couldn't is so mired in partisanship that the list of stymied legislation is far longer than its accomplishments.

To be fair, it was not an entirely wasted two years on Capitol Hill. It just feels that way. Early on, Congress approved two of the major planks in President Bush's platform, the tax cut and the "No Child Left Behind" education bill. Immediately after 9/11, it voted the additional funds and powers the president sought for the war on terrorism.

This year, it revived the presidential authority to negotiate trade agreements with other countries. It added an election reform measure, designed to eliminate hanging chads and other travesties, to the earlier bill ending unlimited soft-money contributions to the political parties. It also ordered tighter controls on corporate fraud.

The effects of almost every one of these measures is debatable. They may or may not help the economy, the political process and the national well-being. What Congress did not do was take available steps to deal with practical and pressing problems faced by millions of American families.

It did nothing to deal with the growing crisis in the health care system, with prices exploding, the ranks of the uninsured growing and hospitals in serious financial trouble. It could not agree on a plan to provide prescription drug benefits even to the neediest Medicare recipients or to give patients in managed-care plans more rights of appeal.

Although it knew for many months that the pioneering welfare reforms passed in 1996 were up for renewal and refinement this year, it could not agree on desirable changes so it simply extended the old law temporarily.

The energy initiative launched by the White House in secrecy and controversy in 2001 died in 2002. The House and Senate passed separate bills, heading in different directions, and never were able to reconcile the two versions.

Another Bush priority, to ease the limits on religious organizations' receiving federal funds for social services to troubled individuals and families, also foundered in disagreement.

Measures to provide a helping hand to some of the most vulnerable Americans also went by the board. The minimum wage was not raised, unemployment benefits were not extended and no special funding came through for drought-stricken farmers.

And, of course, the bill to create a Department of Homeland Security to coordinate widely scattered agencies an initiative launched by Democrats and embraced by Bush foundered over what should have been a negotiable disagreement on job rights of federal employees.

Republicans blame the impasse on most of these issues on Senate Democrats, while Democrats point their fingers at House Republican leaders.

The truth is that there has been a failure of leadership in both chambers and in both parties and in the White House as well.

The voters handed those leaders a difficult challenge, when they created near-parity between Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the Capitol. Given that close balance of power, it was almost inevitable that when each issue came up, the first question asked was, "Will this help us or help them?"

But the measure of leaders is their ability to recognize concerns that are truly of fundamental importance and to deal with them, not as matters of short-term partisan advantage, but of national interest. The case can be made that the resolution on Iraq was given that treatment.

But too many other issues were not and the scorn voters feel for Congress is unfortunately well-deserved.

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