Feuding politicians often bring haste and waste to legislation

Many enacted reforms have difficulty standing the test of time

May 14, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Amid a hue and cry over the transfer of critical missile technology to China, an outraged Congress slapped new restrictions in 1998 on satellite export licenses, transferring licensing authority from the business-friendly Commerce Department to the far more cautious Department of State.

Less than two years later, U.S. satellite makers have suffered a nearly 40 percent decline in exports, and moves are afoot in the House and Senate to undo many of the restrictions enacted in the white heat of scandal.

Plunging satellite sales are but one example of the unintended consequences of legislation rammed through Congress in the midst of scandals - real or imagined.

Two years ago, startling accounts of IRS abuse led to sweeping changes at the Internal Revenue Service - and, ultimately, declining enforcement actions and evidence that tax scofflaws feel they are more free to flout the law.

Hasty efforts to safeguard nuclear weapons activities more zealously have hampered the Energy Department's ability to combat safety and health hazards at nuclear weapons plants.

And new congressional restrictions on the release of "sensitive information" have led to bureaucratic meltdowns among nuclear defense contractors who fear they could face steep fines for the release of almost any information."We just keep shooting ourselves in the foot," complained Democratic Rep. Sam Gejdensonof Connecticut, who is moving to undo many of the changes on satellite licensing enacted in 1998. "And what's amazing is how quickly we reload."

The country may be seeing the legislative fruits of a Congress that has acted with remarkable hostility toward a president that lawmakers simply do not trust, said Stephen Wayne, a congressional scholar at Georgetown University. But it would not be the first time that dynamic has produced ill-considered legislation.

Spasms of questionable laws seem to develop each time one party asserts control over Congress when the opposing party's president has inflamed voter passions, Wayne said. A Democratic Congress enacted a slew of legislative reforms in the wake of Watergate that have had difficulty standing the test of time. A hostile Republican Congress ran roughshod over the Truman administration from 1946 to 1948, Wayne said."They want to get back at what they think are excesses of a president. And they overreact with legislation designed to take a problem and really hit it over the head," Wayne said. "What comes out is not a nuanced instrument but a blunt one."

The furor over Chinese espionage allegations, for example, led to a flurry of legislation that has yielded unexpected results.

Over the Clinton administration's objections, Congress created a semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration to take control of the Energy Department's nuclear weapons plants and laboratories.

That move, which took effect this year, severed the link between the agency's nuclear defense bureaucracy and its divisions of environment, safety and health and environmental management.

Thus, when eight workers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory were contaminated with plutonium in March, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson had to personally order an investigation by the agency's environment, safety and health division, an action that would have happened automatically before Los Alamos was placed under a semiautonomous entity.

But the most notable fallout from the Chinese espionage charges landed on the U.S. satellite industry. Media reports of satellite makers helping China improve its space launch vehicles drove much of Congress into a fury two summers ago, with charges that Clinton had committed treason and placed the country in peril.

The House set up a select committee to look at the missile technology transfer allegations. But months before the committee had reached its conclusions, Congress had passed its remedy, transferring authority over satellite export licenses from the Commerce Department to the State Department, where lawmakers believed national security issues would be treated more rigorously.

Since then, the State Department has slowed the pace of licensing to a crawl.

Last December, the chairman of DaimlerChrysler Aerospace of Germany, a division of the giant automaker, informed Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright that his company had been "compelled to issue a directive instructing our divisions to reduce their dependency on U.S. suppliers.""Faced with interrupted assembly lines, loss of customer confidence and penalties for late deliveries, we had no choice," the executive wrote.

Thursday, Gejdenson, the Connecticut congressman, along with two Republicans and two other Democrats, introduced legislation to shift export licensing authority back to the Commerce Department, with a special provision governing satellite sales to China.

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