Neither lawmakers nor public knows how to get things going


May 24, 1992|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- More bad news from the gridlocked government: The nation's lawmakers are as pessimistic as the public about getting things moving again.

They're critical of themselves and the president but short on solutions. Like many of their angry constituents, they seem to be waiting for somebody to show them the way.

"I think great leadership would bring us out of it," says veteran Rep. Thomas J. Downey, a New York Democrat. "Unfortunately, we don't appear to have any great leaders."

The disillusionment in Washington comes at a time when the rest of the world wants to emulate the United States.

"Our system has never been more in vogue to be copied. At the very same time, we have developed such enormous self-doubt," observes Rep. Jim Leach, an Iowa Republican.

Some legislators hope elections this year will end the stalemate by bringing fresh blood into Congress and perhaps the White House. But merely changing the cast of characters won't end one of the underlying problems: Gridlock in government mirrors paralyzing conflicts within society about national goals and the government's role.

What is needed, say a growing number of Congress members, is franker dialogue between politicians and the public about the nation's problems. That requires the critical leadership ingredient so lacking today: courage.

"Members of Congress have tried to abdicate their responsibility to a great degree during the decade of the '80s and into the '90s," says Rep. Mike Synar, a Democrat from Oklahoma. "They have tried to avoid making tough votes that will then be reflected in either a 30-second commercial or a voting record that will not sit favorably with groups back home."

So gridlock continues. If Republicans and Democrats agree on anything, it is that they cannot recall another impasse that has been as protracted and bitter.

"Now is the worst time I've seen," says Rep. William S. Broomfield, a Michigan Republican who has been in office since the Eisenhower administration.

"On any of the major challenges facing us, it's hard to see any movement except movement in the wrong direction," says Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, "whether we're talking about the fiscal situation of the country or the health care system or the education system or the infrastructure."

Demoralized, and in some cases tainted by the House bank scandal, many members of Congress are giving up: 49 have voluntarily retired, a post-World War II record.

Public duty

The crisis in government is driving an increasing number of legislators to demand more accountability from the public as well as themselves. They say leadership is a two-way street: If citizens are to expect it, they must participate more fully in the political process.

"They seem more engaged now with Ross Perot and with David Duke and with 'outsiders' than they've ever been involved with the people they've sent here," Mr. Synar says. "During the decade of the '80s . . . I think every member of the [House] and Senate will tell you, you couldn't find a crowd to have a town meeting with, you couldn't get people to write their congressman and give him their opinion."

A frequent complaint is that the public sends Washington a "mixed message": demanding services while refusing to pay more taxes or to cut costly entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security.

"The American people really believe there's a free lunch," says Sen. Warren B. Rudman, Republican of New Hampshire who is retiring after devoting much of his Senate career to a futile fight against rising deficits.

"More than half the American people believe the budget can be (( balanced by eliminating fraud, waste and abuse. . . . And we allow them to believe that. And the media [don't] take us to task for it."

But the "mixed message" might be a symptom of deeper conflicts in society.

Gary C. Jacobson, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, says the public is composed of "lots of different subgroups that care very much about some aspects of public policy" but that don't form a cohesive whole. This, in turn, creates divisions in government.

"Congress has a terrible time reaching agreement within itself and [with] the White House as well because public preferences on major issues are so conflicting and sometimes self-conflicting," Mr. Jacobson says.

The parties also are divided into factions. President Bush stumbled over a Republican fault line in 1990 when he reached a tax-raising budget agreement with congressional Democrats that infuriated many in his party and led to Patrick J. Buchanan's presidential candidacy.

"I think if you had to take a long view of it, we are working ourselves through a difficult time, both in the country and in the institutions of government," says Richard Fenno, a University of Rochester political scientist.

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