Slumping in place

October 10, 2004

IT MIGHT BE AMUSING to hear congressional Republicans out on the campaign trail in a final push before the November elections boast about their accomplishments this year. There have hardly been any.

Most major legislation they tackled - the energy bill, the highway bill, welfare reform, tort reform - is dead in the water because it couldn't attract enough votes to pass. An overhaul of the intelligence agencies prompted by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks requires a speedy House-Senate compromise if it is to be enacted, as GOP leaders hope, this month.

A budget blueprint was never adopted, and so much work remains to be done on the must-pass annual spending bills that lawmakers will have to return to Washington in November to dole out the bucks in a lame-duck session - an unsavory proposition.

The House, in particular, didn't show up much, logging the fewest number of legislative days of any year since 1948.

But if neither body had shown up at all, the result wouldn't be much different.

Senate Republican leaders sought at a news conference Friday to blame this shabby record on "obstructionist" Democrats. And it's true that the majority of Democrats often resisted the worst of the GOP proposals.

The real problem, though, was that Republicans could not resolve policy differences within their own ranks.

The budget blueprint failed because the deficit hawks and the tax-cutters couldn't agree on pay-as-you-go rules to try to bring the budget back into balance. Thus, spending continues unchecked and the government is bumping up against its debt ceiling.

The highway bill went off the road in another spending dispute. House demands to protect manufacturers of MTBE, a gas additive that contaminates soil and water, from legal liability for damage it causes doomed the energy bill. Welfare reform went down over work requirements without adequate child care assistance.

Tort reforms related to medical malpractice, class-action lawsuits and asbestos liability have fallen victim to lobbying by the competing interests.

Prospects for winning a compromise between House and Senate Republicans on the intelligence bill are complicated by disputes over how much power to grant the proposed director of national intelligence and over anti-immigrant provisions added by the House.

Republican campaigners might argue that Congress could be much more productive if voters provided them party margins so large they wouldn't have to win over every Republican, or (gasp!) a few Democrats.

But that's not likely to happen soon because so few seats are expected to change hands.

And while one-party control may boost the quantity of work done, it doesn't necessarily improve the quality. The best legislation is produced in the center by lawmakers who yield on extreme positions to find a broadly acceptable compromise.

Republican leaders have apparently decided doing nothing is preferable to compromise. Fair enough. But don't blame the Democrats. They're merely spectators at a GOP food fight.

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