Do they have the nerve?

Leslie H. Gelb

August 07, 1991|By Leslie H. Gelb

PRESIDENT Bush came home from his virtuoso performance in the Soviet Union only to resume the posture of a petulant preppy. Democrats are "frustratingly negative on everything" and, "We need more farsighted people like me in Congress," he said like a Professor Henry Higgins lamenting Democratic Eliza Doolittles.

There is a way for Bush to have his wish and for Democrats to have a better chance to reclaim the White House -- if they have the nerve. Let's call the idea "modified parliamentary democracy," and it can be done without changing the Constitution.

The legislative process would work like this: The Democratic majorities in the House and Senate would pass bills as they see fit, representing the Democrats' approaches to domestic problems, and for which they would bear political responsibility. The Republican president could approve or veto.

If the bill were vetoed, Democrats then would allow passage of the Republican bill on the same subject for which Republicans would shoulder responsibility.

The idea is to break the political-ideological stalemate in Washington and establish greater responsibility as a basis for voter choice. Legislation could be passed with much less inter-party dickering and log-rolling.

Whatever legislation became law would more clearly be labeled as Democratic or Republican. A confusing case would be where Bush supported a Democratic measure, but that would be unusual.

Problems would be addressed with either liberal or conservative answers, and voters would know better whom to blame and reward. An example would be the bill to extend unemployment benefits just passed by a large majority against the threat of presidential veto.

Bush might have the guts to buy the idea. Republicans like Newt Gingrich in the House, strong believers with policy proposals, might see it as the only opportunity for Republicans to enact their programs and gain control of Congress.

Democrats would be reluctant. House Speaker Tom Foley and the Senate majority leader, George Mitchell, seem to think they are being responsible by trying to compromise with Republicans.

But the result is almost always either gridlock or mushy, minimal legislation that satisfies only back-room wheeler-dealers. Most committee leaders prefer the present system for just those reasons. More difficult, many congressional Democrats would gag at going along with Republican legislation after a veto of their own in areas like civil rights and unemployment compensation.

To these Democrats, the only answer is that they have no hope of translating their beliefs into laws in the current system -- unless they capture the White House. Their best chance of doing that is by letting Republicans pass their laws, and triumph or hang themselves.

I turn to this kind of stark and mechanical idea only because the present situation is ridiculous, and I do not see another solution.

For months now Republicans and Democrats have pressed another idea -- urging Bush to shift his priorities from foreign to domestic. The hope was that if he paid more attention to what was going on in the United States, he would see the devastating problems and go to work. To which he answered last Friday that things were fine at home and "I am not going to lose interest in world peace."

One can only conclude from this masterly retort that Bush will continue to pay more mind to Cyprus than Cincinnati. Every time he resurfaces on domestic issues he scares the hell out of Democrats.

Last week Foley seemed to back away from the Democrats' commitment to a bill that would provide $150 billion for highway and mass-transit construction and repair. Rank-and-file Democrats could not face the prospect of Bush attacking them over the 5-cent-per-gallon tax increase needed to finance the bill.

Bush also said on Friday that "the last thing" he wanted from legislation was to "increase the deficit." But two weeks ago Richard Darman, his budget tamer, announced that the deficit would be $20 billion to $40 billion larger than predicted for the next several years due to "technical re-estimates" in tax revenues.

Hardly a whimper was heard in Washington. Allow me to grumble for the rest of us, and to search for a way out.

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