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Archive for Sunday, April 9, 2006

Bickering, apathy surround Congress

April 9, 2006

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— Congress began a two-week break on Friday, this time for Easter.

The last break was two weeks ago - a seven-day recess for St. Patrick's Day.

At this rate, lawmakers will spend fewer days in Washington this year than any time since Harry Truman ran against the "do-nothing" Congress in 1948.

The lackadaisical schedule and the inability to pass major legislation raise a fundamental question: Is Congress broken?

Members of the House of Representatives left unable to pass a budget. The Senate watched a bipartisan deal on immigration come unglued, leaving President Bush's hopes for comprehensive border security and foreign guest-worker legislation in tatters. The House ethics committee can't bring itself to examine pending ethics complaints against fellow members. Fix Social Security before baby-boom retirees exhaust its reserves? That's for another day.

Hamstrung by partisanship and internal Republican divisions, lawmakers increasingly are unable to address complex national problems such as a broken health care system and out-of-control spending on prized programs.

Bipartisan splits

The Republican majority shuts Democrats out of the legislative process. Democratic leaders warn Democrats not to align themselves with moderate Republicans.

Going home may be the only sane thing left to do.

"The more you work, the more mischief is made because of more acrimony on the floor, then there's more bloodletting," said Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla.

Scholars and current and former lawmakers say Congress isn't only unable to tackle difficult issues, it also has lost its standing as a branch of government equal to that of the executive and judiciary. With single-party control of the White House and both houses of Congress, legislative oversight of the administration has been hesitant at best, and more often nonexistent.

'Stonewalling'

To be sure, the Bush administration hasn't helped. On Thursday, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, criticized Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales for "stonewalling" questions about the administration's domestic eavesdropping program.

"How can we discharge our oversight if, every time we ask a pointed question, we're told the program is classified?" Sensenbrenner asked Gonzales. "I think that ... is stonewalling."

Gonzales said he couldn't discuss classified matters. "I do not think we are thumbing our nose at the Congress or the courts," Gonzales said.

Domestic surveillance

The Senate Intelligence Committee, which is designed to operate as one of the most bipartisan committees of Congress, has been bickering across partisan lines over its responsibility to hold the Bush administration accountable for its use of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war and its domestic surveillance program.

"One of the things that strikes me about the Congress is its timidity," said former Rep. Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat and respected voice on foreign policy as the director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "There are a good many members who don't want the Congress to be a co-equal branch of government. They buy into the idea that the government can only function if you have a very strong overriding executive."

Former Rep. Mickey Edwards, a Republican from Oklahoma, said the Republican leadership in Congress hasn't only ceded power to the president, it also has acted as an extension of the White House.

"If you start looking toward the president not only as on your team but the leader of your team, the quarterback of your team, it freezes your ability to take the initiative," Edwards said. "Republicans are now tending to think of themselves as part of the White House staff. Democrats instead say: 'We're the opposition. We have to stop him because we have to gain control."'

Democrats respond

The result is an increasingly polarized Legislature. House Republican leaders, eager to press Bush's agenda, changed rules, excluded Democrats and wrote legislation behind closed doors to meet the administration's policy goals. Able to pass legislation with bare GOP majorities, Republicans found bipartisanship unnecessary.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., operates under a political rule that he'll bring legislation to the floor only if it has the support of a "majority of the majority," even if that means ignoring legislation that has broad bipartisan support.

Democrats respond in kind. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, of California, imposed strict discipline over her ranks, refusing to yield any Democratic votes to the majority.

'War room' anti-GOP

In the Senate, where senators tend to act with more independence, Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, set up a communications "war room" to attack Republican initiatives, and party-line voting became more commonplace.

Congress' allegiance to the White House has faltered recently; as Bush's approval ratings fell, Democratic leaders held their troops in line, and Republican unity frayed.

"Republicans, who had been a phalanx of support for Bush, now are in a cacophony," said Bruce Josten, the executive vice president for government affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Josten, who credits Congress for passing several top business-friendly bills last year, said lawmakers this year face a "minimalist agenda session."

Election year

The light agenda, the partisan acrimony and the rising sense in both parties that control of Congress is up for grabs in this year's election have made it easier for leaders to send their troops home.

"Part of our job is here, but part of our job is to see our constituents," House Republican Leader John Boehner, of Ohio, said recently when asked about the congressional work schedule. "And it is an election year and people want to see more of their constituents, and their constituents probably want to see more of their members."

But Congress' schedule may have an unintended result.

Short workweek

In the House, not only are members taking more breaks, but their weekly work schedule also amounts to about two days a week. Leaders now regularly schedule one vote late Tuesday and hold the last vote on Thursday. One result, some former members say, is a loss of collegiality that helps facilitate legislative compromise. Members don't socialize, and their only encounters tend to be in fierce political settings.

"Members don't get to know each other," Edwards said. "This other guy, who has a different label, is not a fellow member of Congress. Instead he becomes the representative of the enemy. That makes it very, very hard to reach agreement."

Congress is scheduled to adjourn Oct. 6 and plans recesses in May, July, August and September. If the House keeps to its Tuesday-Thursday workweek, that leaves just 51 legislative days for members to get to know each other better. And to get something done.

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