The War Congress: Its Course Will Be Shaped By Grander Forces @

February 03, 1991|By PETER OSTERLUND | PETER OSTERLUND,Peter Osterlund covers Congress from the Washington bureau of The Sun.

The War Congress of 1991 could set new standards of irrelevance. Or, it could surprise everyone -- especially the lawmakers who concede such low expectations -- and crank out a good share of important, even ground-breaking legislation affecting the course and destiny of this nation for years to come.

Whichever direction it heads, it will do so regardless of its members' intentions, for the fate of this Congress will be determined by forces grander than the ability of Democrats or Republicans to control them.

In short, good news will be bad news for this Congress, or at least for those representatives and senators who would respond to disaster abroad and depression at home with a blizzard of clever initiatives. The Bad News Congress is a political institution that would be rendered all but impotent in the face of a war quickly prosecuted and an economy that has begun an unambiguous resurrection.

"All we can do now is sit back and enjoy the ride," grumbled a sardonic Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.

Mr. Miller, one of the most relentlessly liberal members of the House, shared that observation after his colleagues handed President Bush the authority to dislodge Iraqi troops from Kuwait by the use of force. But he might as well have been speaking of congressional options across the horizon of topics. The Democratic majority in Congress is no more likely to adopt bold, recession-busting measures while Republicans argue that a recovery is under way than it is inclined to issue strategy directives to the U.S. Central Command in the Persian Gulf.

So much for crisis management in the absence of a crisis, then. What about the every-day business of running a country -- battling it out with the other party in the arena of public affairs and attempting to remedy society's ills?

One might as well forget it, so long as there's a war on and Mr. Bush is floating high in the polls. "It's a reluctance to take on the president out of fear that it could be interpreted as undermining him," said Rep. Leon Panetta, another California Democrat, who chairs the House Budget Committee. "There's a certain amount of self-muzzling going on . . . not as much enthusiasm for staking out a party position."

Of course, when the war is over -- especially amid the backwash of resounding victory -- Capitol Hill's options will be limited. "May, June, July," said Mr. Panetta, "you're that much further behind if you try to spell out an agenda."

And yet, the war is not the only -- perhaps not even the chief -- cause of congressional impotence. Without it, lawmakers would still find themselves straitjacketed, for this Bad News Congress is an Autopilot Congress, engaged largely in housekeeping chores, partly because last year's over-achieving legislative session did a lot of this year's work.

Last year's gargantuan, five-year budget summit agreement assembled after months of excruciating negotiation has left this year's lawmakers with little to do but fill in the details, the grand policy choices having already been thrashed out. What's left seems like scraps. It's true that there's likely to be some serious reform of the banking system. The Democrats will take another stab at passage of a civil rights bill vetoed in the fall. The Senate will probably have an arms control treaty to ratify. But beyond that. . . .

All of this is not to say that Congress is going to be some Maytag repairmen's association in the coming months. In fact, lawmakers will be busy as ever as they buzz through a year that will be nothing if not a preamble to the presidential campaigns of 1992.

"I think there's going to be as much partisanship and politics as ever around here," predicted Senate Republican Leader Robert Dole of Kansas. For the shape of those politics, one needed to look no further than the ritualistic hubbub surrounding state-of-the-union address.

The avowed objective is election-year polarization. Conservatives were delirious about the president's second annual speech to the nation, packed as it was with all manner of supply-side, free market bromides -- vouchers for schools, enterprise zones for inner cities and, of course, a capital gains tax cut to stimulate the economy.

Liberals struck back at capital gains and pledged to ram the civil rights bill down the president's throat. Both sides said they wanted to overhaul energy policies, address the swelling health care crisis, expand veterans benefits and limit Social Security taxes.

But the week's most heartfelt, passionate dialectic may have concerned the Patriot anti-missile missile, which has spectacularly defended the skies over Tel Aviv and Dharan from Iraqi Scud missiles. Supporters of the Strategic Defense Initiative claim that the Patriot's success validates the need for the kind of comprehensive, space-based missile defense system that SDI is supposed to develop. Detractors say that the Patriot represents a different type of system than contemplated by SDI.

The detractors say that Patriot is an Army program, utterly separate from SDI. Supporters say it draws from the same technological base as SDI. Both sides are gearing up for a fight. One Capitol Hill staffer, new to Washington, summarized the debate this way: "Unbelievably childish."

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