Feeling pretty good about itself after first assembling to debate peace or war in the Persian Gulf 20 months ago, the 102nd Congress finds itself embroiled in partisan controversy and self-flagellation as it heads into its last few weeks of legislative work. Congress' bitter ending is partly an institutional failure that finds the voting public enraged at its representatives. But it is also the product of a lagging economy, uncertainty about America's future world role and gridlock between its Democratic majority and a Republican president.
Actually, this is a Congress that passed a landmark measure to protect Americans with disabilities last year and may yet enact the most sweeping energy legislation in a generation before it goes home. These and other accomplishments, however, are overshadowed by scandal, wheel-spinning and the triumph of politics over policy on the Hill.
Topping the list of what needs to be done before pre-election adjournment next month is the enactment of key appropriations bills. Even this is not assured, especially if the money bills trigger another veto battle between President Bush and the Democratic leadership. It would be a final failure if the government winds up in the legislative cop-out known as the "continuing resolution," when previous spending patterns prevail until supplemental appropriations are belatedly enacted.
The race for the White House between George Bush and Bill Clinton, plus the quest for survival on the part of incumbents in Congress, will dominate. If some kind of a tax bill makes it through the maze, it will be because its provisions are irresistible to politicians in both parties. Tax breaks for enterprise zones, an issue revived by the Los Angeles riots, and wider deductibility for Individual Retirement Accounts will be major provisions. Even more irresistible will be special appropriations to aid victims of Hurricane Andrew under emergency rules that permit budget ceilings to be punctured.
Congress could be tossed into the middle of presidential debate on such issues as family leave, fetal tissue research, trade penalties against China, the free-trade pact with Mexico, the nomination of another conservative to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, and, possibly, freedom of choice on abortion. That is, if time permits.
If the president is to suffer his first veto loss since his inauguration, it might be on a bipartisan measure to regulate the cable TV industry after years of rate hikes. It would be a belated and feeble triumph for Democratic leaders, who have suffered one humiliation after another.
This Congress will not be celebrated or fondly remembered, and for good reason. When the 103rd convenes in January, perhaps one-third of the House will be new members -- an astounding number even in an reapportionment year -- and the make-up of the Senate will be much changed. Whether Congress can then reform itself will have as much to do with its internal dynamics as with the party affiliation of the president.