102nd Congress leaves legacy of scandal, inaction Lawmakers battle, fail to address key domestic issues

October 11, 1992|By Adam Clymer | Adam Clymer,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The 102nd Congress left town last week without good humor or credibility, remembered as much for its embarrassments as for its legislation, and notable for battles with President Bush when one side or the other claimed victory but national problems like the recession endured.

This Congress will make the history books, but primarily for foreign policy, for moments when it followed Mr. Bush's lead and voted for war in the Persian Gulf and for peace with Russia, along with foreign aid, after a Cold War that had lasted longer than the tenure of almost every senator or representative.

The vote to authorize Mr. Bush to attack Iraq reasserted the congressional authority over the war-making power that had languished since the 1950s. The vote to assist Russia and other nations of the former Soviet Union ended more than four decades when foreign aid was a means of overcoming Moscow in the contest for world power.

In a way, the record of Congress is not all that different from that of the president it confronted: historic in the foreign policy areas that the public is turning away from; slight in domestic areas that worry Americans more and more.

Congress did pass important energy, transportation and health legislation that Mr. Bush signed or will sign. But on more grand issues, it did less. It worried about the health care crisis but never brought an important bill to a vote. It passed tax cuts that it hardly believed in, saying it was trying to stimulate the economy.

And on veto issues ranging from abortion to family and medical leave to China's trade status and unemployment benefits, Congress and the president made a political point when they could not solve a problem. That differs from its record in the first two years of the Bush administration.

There were tough fights and vetoes. But the 101st Congress negotiated with Mr. Bush, often painfully, and enacted major domestic measures, including the Americans With Disabilities Act, the renewal of the Clean Air Act, broadened immigration policies, child care measures and the 1990 budget law. But things changed in the 102nd Congress. Both sides had nearly exhausted the agenda of problems that mattered enough so that compromise, not insistence on first principles, was acceptable.

So on Nov. 9, 1990, John H. Sununu, the White House chief of staff, said: "There's not a single piece of legislation that needs to be passed in the two years remaining for this president. In fact, if Congress wants to come together, adjourn and leave, it's all right with us. We don't need them."

The joint decision on the war, a rare, eloquent moment when Congress commanded the country's attention, was a signal exception. But for most of this Congress, the administration has lived largely by the Sununu standard.

Congress helped make that possible with a series of scandals that started unfolding last fall. Disclosures that the House had a bank where checks never bounced and a restaurant where some bills lingered on past a representative's retirement fed the sense that Congress was disconnected from the world where its constituents struggled to get by.

The Senate put its defects on national television during the Judiciary Committee's hearings on Anita Hill's accusation of sexual harassment against Judge Clarence Thomas, and both principals' defenders were appalled.

Even Sen. George J. Mitchell of Maine, the majority leader and a staunch defender of the Senate's handling of the nomination, conceded last week that it was "indisputable" that the hearings made the public think less of the Senate. Democratic leaders in Congress argued that the out-of-touch image took hold because Congress was not solving the nation's problems, and that that failure, in turn, was caused by what House Speaker Thomas S. Foley of Washington last week called "the obdurate decision of the president to veto so many bills."

Of course, that's a partisan view, just as balanced as last week's argument of Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, the minority leader, that Republicans could count this Congress a success because "the most important thing was what we did do in stopping the

Democrats' continuing to jack up the deficit."

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