A bad way to legislate

Congress: Obsessed by politics, Republicans pass wasteful laws and block judicial nominations.

May 21, 2000

IT'S A POOR WAY to govern.

Republicans running Congress have a phobia about gaining partisan advantage over Democrat Bill Clinton. The result: Hastily passed laws designed to embarrass and punish the Clinton administration have become costly, wasteful duds. And the GOP's determination to put politics ahead of sound governance has led to a record number of judicial vacancies.

As The Sun's Jonathan Weisman reported recently, too-hasty lawmaking to address scandals has had unintended and harmful consequences:

Bans on trade with China, designed to halt transfer of missile technology, ended up staggering the U.S. satellite-manufacturing business instead.

Reforms of the Internal Revenue Service have led to sharp declines in collections against non-payers. Now it turns out the alleged "abuses" that inspired the reforms can't be substantiated.

A law mandating tougher safeguards at nuclear weapons plants has instead slowed responses to safety lapses.

But perhaps the most alarming trend has been the Republican Senate's dithering on judicial nominations. Despite a GOP rush to push through a few judicial nominations to blunt criticism in an election year, only seven of 43 nominations have been approved.

A Berkeley law professor, William Fletcher, waited four years before Republicans found him qualified for the federal bench. A San Francisco attorney, Barry Goode, was nominated to the bench two years ago but still hasn't been given a hearing.

Yes, every congressional majority -- Democratic or Republican -- seeks political advantage. But not to this obsessive degree.

A study jointly conducted by the liberal Brookings Institution and the conservative Heritage Foundation underlines this point. It surveyed 435 Cabinet and sub-Cabinet offices in the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and found that delays in approving nominations are anywhere from two to four times longer today.

The study concluded this has brought presidential appointments to the brink of "complete collapse." The Heritage Foundation's Virginia L. Thomas predicted that regardless of which candidate wins the presidency in November, he'd "be lucky to have [his] Cabinet and sub-Cabinet in place by Nov. 1, 2001" -- nine months into his term.

Such conduct undermines the sound functioning of government. Congress was not created to dictate appointments to presidents, but to serve as a check against unseemly selections. Nor is it Congress' role to turn the entire legislative process into a highly partisan political battleground. Public policy suffers when that happens.

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