Congress drops the ball Few achievements: Year's output marked more by failure to act on key legislative bills than by Capital Hill success stories.

November 18, 1997

TAKE A BLANK sheet of paper. Now, draw a line down the center. On one side, list all the achievements of the 105th Congress in 1997; on the other side, list all its failures. You'll find a lot more Fs than As.

Partisanship dominated. It proved easier for Republicans to get out of town in a hurry -- earlier than any Congress in 32 years -- than to stay till they finished their business.

Lost in the hasty departure was any chance to revamp the Internal Revenue Service, rewrite the law governing highway and mass transit funding, reform campaign financing, revise the Endangered Species Act, expand "fast-track" trade agreements, pay off this country's $900 million United Nations debt, and help underwrite an International Monetary Fund program to cope with global financial crises.

On the plus side, chalk up earlier in the year a balance-budget agreement (easily reached, thanks to a booming economy), approval of the Chemical Weapons Treaty, an overhaul of the drug-approval regulatory process and a rescue package for Amtrak.

Slim pickings. Even the Amtrak rescue could fall apart in a new labor dispute over wages next year. Amtrak remains on the critical list.

Ironically, the same Republicans and Democrats who feuded in the fall proved remarkably cooperative in the spring. It was this consensus-building mood that sealed the balanced-budget deal.

But once that major achievement was out of the way, politics took center stage. It got so bad even right-winger Sen. Jesse Helms failed to gain approval of his plan to revamp the U.N. and State Department because of the unyielding stance House right-wingers took on an unrelated anti-abortion amendment.

Democrats weren't much better, especially in the House where liberals turned the "fast-track" trade issue into a Democratic civil war, with liberals and labor unions on one side and President Clinton on the other. Mr. Clinton was forced to rely heavily on Republican support, but in the end that wasn't enough.

Will the Republican-dominated Congress perform better in 1998? Don't count on it. Measures that hold political import will find favor -- such as the highway and IRS measure -- but not many other substantive bills.

Lawmakers returning home may discover that they can't hoodwink constituents about Congress' slim list of successes. They will have to do better -- much better -- in January if they intend to impress voters in November.

Pub Date: 11/18/97

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