Congress' pretty good record

March 30, 1994

As the last session of the 103rd Congress gets down to the period when a year-plus of preparation is expected to start paying off in legislation, this Congress can point to a pretty fair record.

For example, the House passed a lobbying disclosure bill last week. It is similar to the bill the Senate passed last year. Neither HTC is perfect, but when enacted the law will be a lot better than the ineffective law on the books since 1946. Existing campaign finance law is also ineffective, and both House and Senate have passed "reform" bills in this field. These efforts are far from perfect.

House and Senate have also passed independent counsel laws. The old law expired in 1992. Though the appointment of a special prosecutor in the Whitewater case shows that such a law may not be necessary, it is a good club to keep in the closet. As for garden variety crime, the Senate has passed and the House is ready to debate an omnibus crime bill that has some good features -- federal money for prisons and more police -- but many bad ones (for example, federalizing dozens of criminal acts previously left to the states to handle), which should be and will be dropped if legislators realize that their constituents recognize this as mere posturing. Constituents pressured them on the Brady Bill, and they can pressure them on this bill, too.

This Congress has an opportunity to redefine for the better the federal approach in aid to poorer elementary and secondary schools. But last week's vote in the House approving $12.4 billion for those schools suggests that Congress may not be ready to do the right thing. It rewrote the administration bill so that well-to-do school districts will still siphon off money badly needed elsewhere. The Senate may correct that after the recess. We hope it does.

There have been clear successes. Both House and Senate raised the low mining royalties on federal lands, for example; and just last week the full House and a Senate committee OK'd interstate banking legislation.

Of course, the legislative branch will get little credit for such routine work if in the end it fails to enact some kind of health care reform. Congress and the president have made that the litmus test of success for 1994. Three small steps in that direction were taken in March. A House Ways and Means subcommittee approved a version of such a bill. The chairman of the other House committee centrally involved -- John Dingell of Energy and Commerce -- announced support for another version. And the Senate Finance Committee's members informally indicated consensus on universal coverage, which the president and the key House players (at least the Democratic ones) all now agree a successful health care reform bill must include.

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