Do no harm

September 01, 2002

ONE LAST QUICKIE congressional session - before the fall elections - opens this week.

House and Senate candidates, fresh from a month on the campaign trail, will be eager to score a few points with voters.

Here's a novel idea: restraint. Pass a handful of modest bills - like those that would protect pensions, upgrade state election systems, and ease patents on prescription drugs - and go home.

The schedule - six weeks interrupted by holidays and commemorative events revolving around Sept. 11 - allows little time for complicated undertakings, anyway. With political rhetoric at high pitch, the partisan divide in Congress pretty much rules out action on any measure as contentious as adding a drug benefit to Medicare.

In many instances, that's a blessing. Doing the job badly is far worse than not doing it at all.

For example, Senate leaders are determined to win approval this month for their approach to creating a new Department of Homeland Security. But resolving differences with the House version seems too tall an order to be filled quickly. That's fine. It can wait.

Consideration of possible military action in Iraq is a wild card that could come up at any moment. Nothing seems imminent, though. Certainly no rush to judgment is called for there.

President Bush is eager for the two houses to pass an energy bill. But there may not be enough worth salvaging in that measure to devote much effort to it.

It is all but certain the lawmakers won't even have time for the one task they are required by law to perform by Oct. 1: enacting the 13 spending bills that finance most of the government.

A symbolic confrontation is brewing over the Senate Democrats' demand for $9 billion more than Mr. Bush wants to spend. Odds are, Congress will kick the can to a lame-duck session in December, and perhaps postpone action again until March while federal departments function on automatic pilot.

That delay wouldn't be so terrible, either. It's better than approving a flood of new pork barrel spending at a time when federal revenues are shrinking at an alarming rate.

Even without a final agreement on spending, this Congress could perform a valuable service by reimposing the budget discipline devices set to expire Oct. 1.

These "speed bumps," as they are known, were first approved in 1990 and simply make it more difficult - but not impossible - for spending to get wildly out control. For example, tax cuts or spending proposals offered outside of the budget plan must be offset by tax increases or spending cuts elsewhere. A three-fifths Senate majority is required to waive these requirements. That has proved a tough standard to meet and played a big role in helping Congress achieve a balanced budget in the late 1990s.

If Congress is hoping to soothe investors rattled by the string of accounting frauds and this summer's stock market plunge, it would be helpful to enact a version of the House-passed bill that gives workers greater control over their retirement savings.

Before voters hit the polls in November, Congress would also be smart to fix the snags delaying final action on election reform legislation that has been in the works since the 2000 debacle. That bill, sponsored in the House by Maryland Democrat Steny H. Hoyer, would set minimal national election standards, ease access to the polls for disabled voters and pump millions in aid to the states to help rid them of outmoded voting machines.

Restraint isn't much fun. Much more tempting will be a bevy of new tax cut proposals offered to help revive the economy.

And limited measures may be worth a look. As for the rest, lawmakers would do better to take a cold shower.

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