Paralysis resumes

September 13, 1994|By Charles Peters

CONGRESS IS BACK in session, but there is little hope that it will accomplish much before returning to the campaign trail.

The main reason for pessimism is the naysayers who control all but a handful of the Republican members in both houses -- and who, with help from defecting Democrats like Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, use procedural maneuvers -- including an unprecedented number of threatened filibusters -- to endow a minority with the power to impose gridlock.

One reason I feel this way may be that I am a liberal Democrat.

But there is a relentless negativism, even nastiness, about the Republican leadership that I believe offends people of goodwill regardless of ideology.

The scariest fact is that the three most potent Republicans in Congress -- Senators Bob Dole of Kansas and Phil Gramm of Texas, and Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia -- are likely to be very powerful for years to come.

Mr. Gingrich will either be minority leader or speaker of the house in the next session.

Mr. Dole will be either majority or minority leader of the Senate. He is also running for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination.

Running even harder is Mr. Gramm, who is the leader in trips to New Hampshire. Because of his power over the GOP's dominant right wing in the Senate, he is also the man who brings Mr. Dole back into line on the rare occasions when the Kansan flirts with the possibility of reasonable compromise.

What I dislike most about these three is their hypocrisy and their refusal to try to meet the Democrats halfway in an effort to solve the country's problems.

This hypocrisy is illustrated by their seemingly fervent opposition to government spending in general and to pork in particular.

As for pork, Cobb County, Ga., Mr. Gingrich's home, gets more federal dollars than all but two other suburban counties in America.

"Grammstanding" is the term Texans use to describe Mr. Gramm's penchant for claiming credit for every federal dollar spent in Texas, including the billions wasted on the Superconducting Supercollider.

Once, in an unusually candid moment, the senator said of his appetite for pork, "I'm beginning to get trichinosis."

The National Taxpayers Union found in one recent period that Mr. Gramm was one of only three members of the House and Senate not to have sponsored a single cost-cutting measure.

The bills he did sponsor, if enacted, would have added $8 billion to the federal deficit.

Recently, in the spirit of doing anything to defeat Bill Clinton at every turn, Senators Dole and Gramm attacked the crime bill's trust fund, which had been created to finance anti-crime programs, forgetting to mention that they had been among the fund's original sponsors.

When The Atlantic Monthly checked staff salaries for House members in 1991, Mr. Gingrich was spending more tax dollars to hire staff than any other member of the Georgia delegation.

Not long ago, the Dallas Morning News caught Mr. Gramm trying to frighten voters into thinking that funds for the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio were threatened, so he could appear as the hospital's savior.

"We have tried to create a B.A.M.C. funding scare while feeling comfortable that B.A.M.C. is safe from the budget knife," said a staff memo that fell into the hands of the Morning News.

But beyond their cynicism, I am disturbed by the unwillingness ++ of these three to meet Mr. Clinton even a quarter of the way when he tries, however imperfectly, to find solutions for the nation's problems.

Take their attitude on health care. Rep. Fred Grandy, R-Iowa, tells of receiving "marching orders" from Mr. Gingrich not to offer any constructive amendments that might attract bipartisan support and thereby enhance prospects for the legislation.

Mr. Dole, who in 1991 told the Senate there was a health care "crisis," suddenly changed his mind when the Clinton health plan came along.

The saddest aspect of this obstructionism is that for two decades liberal Democrats have increasingly tried to find common ground with conservatives.

Neo-liberals and new Democrats have been willing, for example, to abandon opposition to tough anti-crime measures in favor of a position that says to conservatives: We agree that we should be tough on violent crime.

Will you agree that we need to do something about prevention? And that if we're going to put the violent criminals away for a long time, we've got to make room for them with shorter sentences or alternative punishments for the nonviolent? The answer from Mr. Gramm, Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Dole: no.

There are, I am convinced, many areas where considerable liberal and conservative agreement is possible.

On welfare, many liberals realize that a "tough love" policy is needed. They just want to make sure that the love doesn't get lost in the process.

On education, although there is sharp disagreement among liberals and conservatives about vouchers, agreement seems possible on issues like merit pay and administrative bloat.

But none of this potential agreement is going to become reality in a Congress in which Mr. Gramm, Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Dole control the Republicans.

They are today's Mr. Martin, Mr. Barton and Mr. Fish, whom older readers will remember as the three Republicans most dedicated to obstructing Franklin D. Roosevelt's efforts to prepare the nation for World War II.

The only reason they are remembered at all today is a speech that F.D.R. made ridiculing their automatic negativism.

Their successors should consider the possibility of a similar fate.

In a recent poll, 32 percent blamed Mr. Clinton for the gridlock in government -- but 48 percent blamed the Republicans in Congress.

Charles Peters is editor-in-chief of The Washington Monthly.

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