Do-nothing Congress is an apt label

April 28, 1999|By Marianne Means

WASHINGTON -- It's a wonder the substantive business of the nation gets done.

It has ever been thus, although it does seem that inertia and cowardice have increased with the intense partisan polarization that characterizes modern U.S. politics.

Congress is full of wimps who steadfastly refuse to face the crucial issues of the day until public demand becomes so urgent that they are forced to act.

President Clinton is not much better, preferring small pleasant themes to the overarching tough issues that might actually make a historic difference in our lives. His own political standing is too fragile to take on Republican congressional leaders in a big way.

We are seeing this stalemate as the White House and Congress duck grave national questions that cry out for resolution.

Reform of Social Security, listed as everyone's priority only a month ago, has just been declared dead for this congressional year by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. He blames Mr. Clinton for not taking the lead. Mr. Clinton blames the GOP-controlled Congress for not even coming up with a plan. And so it goes.

NRA money

Gun control, a festering problem complicated by huge National Rifle Association contributions to key members of Congress, jumped back in the public eye after the high school shootings in Colorado.

Congress has refused to pass even such a minimal restriction as mandated child safety locks on all guns sold, though the public backs such a measure. For all the renewed concern about violence and the proliferation of guns, a sudden congressional epiphany on this subject is unlikely.

Congress is also dithering about our role in the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia to drive President Slobodan Milosevic's troops out of Kosovo.

Individual members are happy to second-guess the administration's handling of the crisis, but none of them have any remarkable solutions of their own to offer. The criticism falls into two simplistic categories, neither original nor useful: Appease the Serbian monster or send in ground troops.

As an institution, Congress has the right to formally object to the war against Yugoslavia. The War Powers Act makes it imperative that the legislative branch be consulted. On the eve of the Persian Gulf war in 1991, Congress voted after heated debate to authorize the military action.

Neither the House nor Senate leadership is eager for an official showdown this time. That would put their votes where their mouths are and would be politically dangerous.

Under pressure, however, House Speaker Dennis Hastert has reluctantly agreed to a vote this week on resolutions that offer a smorgasbord of legislative choices, from demanding that U.S. forces withdraw to declaring war on Yugoslavia. Whatever the outcome, the impact of this toothless display is not going to change NATO strategy.

Finance reform

On a lesser scale, campaign finance reform is also too tough for the easy legislative "out" box. It's one thing to tut-tut about the evils of gross gobs of campaign money and quite another to close off an easy avenue of raising it. Neither party wants to give it up, the public is indifferent, and that's that.

So what are our elected representatives doing to earn their keep? Not much, actually.

They want us to know, however, they are standing firm against an unspeakable horror that threatens to unravel the very fabric of the republic: flag-burning.

They are against it. Wow. Bravery against a nonexistent enemy. For this they are paid $136,700 a year.

Subcommittees in both the Senate and House held hearings recently on a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban and criminalize the desecration of the Stars and Stripes. This amendment is flying along with the speed of a Stealth aircraft, invisible to enemy radar and fueled up for the long haul.

The measure was approved in both panels and seems headed for full committee passage in both houses. We have been around this barn before -- several times.

The House twice approved it in the past. In the Senate four years ago, it fell three votes short. It has not been brought up there again because it still narrowly lacked the two-thirds majority required. But changes in the Senate's party makeup this year may have improved chances of passage.

The demand to tinker with the First Amendment over an act that poses no danger to the republic is irresponsible. If there have been more than a handful of flag-burnings in the past decade, nobody knows about them. Burning the flag was a popular demonstration of rage against the Vietnam War, but that war has been over for a quarter of a century.

The U.S. flag symbolizes our national identity. But it is a sturdy emblem, not a fragile flower. Irreverent replicas appear imprinted on shirts, jackets, tablecloths, napkins and in self-serving commercials. The flag has retained its dignity throughout. Never fear. It will keep flying.

Congress should leave the flag, and the Constitution, alone.

Marianne Means is a syndicated columnist.

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