Low-impact sports

December 23, 2005

Hear the quiet? That's the sound of Washington without Congress - such a striking contrast to the high drama of the Senate's final session this week, it's audible all the way to Baltimore.

Of course, there was so much less going on in the Capitol than met the eye.

Lawmakers of competing partisan stripes variously boast of blocking oil drilling in Alaska's wildlife refuge, passing by a tie vote the first belt-tightening measure in a decade and striking a last-minute bargain to temporarily extend expiring provisions of the so-called Patriot Act to buy time for a consensus compromise on the anti-terrorism measure.

While it's often true that less is more, none of these steps is likely to have a lasting impact.

The refusal by Democrats and moderate Republicans to buckle under to blackmail and bullying by Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens in his 25-year crusade to win approval for energy exploration on the last pristine spot of the Arctic coastal plain was worth applause. Thanks to tactical maneuvering by the White House and congressional Republicans, many believed this would be Senator Stevens' victory year.

The worst feature of the drilling proposal, though, is not the environmental threat, but that the controversy diverted congressional attention from seeking genuine long-term solutions to America's energy problems. There's little to celebrate until that difficult and costly task begins in earnest.

And the budget bill is only a pale imitation of deficit-cutting legislation enacted in 1990, 1993 and 1997, which actually led to a balanced budget. The $40 billion in cuts over five years represents one-fourth of 1 percent of what Congress was scheduled to spend, and those savings are scheduled to be wiped out in tax-cut measures GOP leaders hope to enact early next year.

Worse, Congress put too much of the burden of those cuts on beneficiaries of social programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid, in order to spare providers, including companies that manage drug benefits.

As for the Patriot Act, there was never any danger of the sky falling if the handful of expiring sections had not been extended beyond the Dec. 31 deadline. But Democrats holding out for stronger civil liberties protections feared White House charges that their resistance endangered public safety. So they stuck with a law stronger than the proposed replacement.

They should drive a much harder bargain before the new deadline comes next year.

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