Frist's finale

December 06, 2006

Bill Frist's decision, after years of preening, to abandon a run for the White House was no doubt prompted by his failure to ignite any support among the electorate rather than by his dismal performance as Senate Majority leader.

But his four years in that post, which end with the lame-duck congressional session this month, demonstrate how poorly equipped he is for any sort of leadership.

The biggest stain on Mr. Frist's politically tone deaf tenure was his abdication of the fundamental responsibility to win approval of the spending bills that make up the federal budget. The House, and the Senate committees, did their work in short order. Mr. Frist simply refused to schedule all but the most politically attractive spending bills for Senate floor time until it was too late.

Thus when Congress adjourns for the year this week or perhaps next, it will kick the job of approving this year's budget to the new Democratic majority taking control in January. But that Congress will have its own work to do - on next year's budget. Democratic leaders may well decide just to punt: to approve spending for most federal agencies at current levels through the end of fiscal 2007 in October so they can devote time to a line-by-line review for the fiscal 2008.

Dispirited Republicans may be all too happy to leave their dirty work for the Democrats, but they amply demonstrated why they deserved to be booted out. What on earth do taxpayers pay these people for if not to exercise their constitutional duty to control the federal purse?

Some argue that taxpayers will be better off because the individual spending bills would increase allocations for some agencies and likely come larded with pork-barrel earmarks. In fact, much of the resistance to those spending measures that did reach the Senate floor was focused on removing those earmarks.

Even so, there's no reason to have budget committees and appropriations committees if the government is better off run on automatic pilot.

It's not surprising that the Republican-led Congress doesn't feel like finishing its budget work now. And perhaps its lame-duck priorities should not be governing next year's spending anyway. But all this work could have and should have been done in an orderly way before the election if Senator Frist had put it before political grandstanding on issues such as gay marriage.

A highly regarded heart-lung transplant surgeon before his election to the Senate in 1994, Dr. Frist says he plans to return to his "professional roots as a healer." A wise decision at last.

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