A pathetic performance

July 24, 2006

There's nothing novel about a do-nothing Congress, of course. A do-something Congress is far more rare. And there are plenty of Congresses that would serve the republic best if they didn't show up at all.

Even so, the current collection of lawmakers in Washington has compiled a record of such utter uselessness it deserves note. Led by Republicans divided among themselves, stained by scandal and fleeing the stigma of a flailing president, this Congress is heading shortly into its campaign summer recess with almost nothing to show for more than 19 months on the payroll.

The first branch of government, as the Constitution defines it, has failed miserably to deal with such top concerns as the conflicts in Iraq and Lebanon, soaring gasoline prices and uncontrolled immigration. Nor have worries about health care, education, disappearing pensions or the growing gap between rich and poor gotten adequate attention. Congress hasn't even delivered on the ethics and process reforms promised with such piousness months ago when its vulnerability to corruption was exposed by an ongoing Justice Department probe.

A 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act stands out as the lone achievement so far of this Congress, and even that was threatened in the House by a band of white Southerners and supported by Western Maryland Republican Roscoe G. Bartlett.

Another potential accomplishment - easing five-year restrictions on the use of federal funds for research on embryonic stem cells - was erased by a presidential veto that Congress couldn't muster the votes to override. Still stalled is a reform measure that promised to protect workers from employers who don't meet their pension obligations.

Congress can't control oil prices in this volatile world market, but lawmakers refused to even consider requiring higher vehicle fuel-efficiency standards. Its one bow to fuel fears was to open up further coastal areas of the country to oil and gas drilling - a truly bad idea that also hasn't yet passed.

Instead of devoting itself to such substantive issues, Congress has spent an inordinate amount of time on symbolic trivialities: constitutional amendments to prevent gay marriage and flag-burning, a Pledge Protection Act to block federal courts from striking the "under God" language, and other no-chance proposals simply aimed at currying favor with single-issue voters.

Most disheartening is that individual legislators escape responsibility for this collective failure. Each will go home loaded with pork-barrel favors and respond to constituent complaints by blaming the other guys.

Voters should demand more.

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