A Looming Storm

The new Democratic leaders in Congress face a daunting challenge as they attempt to keep legislative promises and rebuild an institution weakened by partisanship and personal interests

January 07, 2007|By Larry Williams | Larry Williams,Ideas Editor

This week the new Democratic House is expected to move with lightning speed to pass legislation aimed at showing a disenchanted public that the days of the do-nothing Congress are gone.

House leaders are promising to vote quickly centscm+RDjlandaw:vote to raise the federal minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour, to repeal subsidies for the oil industry, cut college-loan interest rates in half, require Medicare to negotiate lower prescription-drug prices for seniors and implement unfulfilled recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission.

Chairmen of congressional committees also are planning substantial hearings later into an array of controversial issues, including the conduct of the Iraq war, the National Security Agency's program of warrantless electronic surveillance of terrorist suspects in the United States and the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina.

But, truth be told, despite all the excitement accompanying the Democrats' return to power after more than a decade in exile, the new leaders can expect a long, challenging struggle to keep their promises to revitalize Congress.

The bills expected to be passed in the House this week are unlikely to be considered by the closely divided Senate for months. Some could effectively be killed there. And the oversight hearings will make a difference only if they move public opinion enough to persuade significant numbers of congressional Republicans to challenge their president.

President Bush offered to work with the new Democratic Congress in a column published in The Wall Street Journal last week. But in the same piece he alluded to his new Iraqi plan - reported to involve the movement of 20,000 or more additional troops to Iraq, a step that defies public opinion and the views of many members of Congress.

Bush also flashed a warning of his veto power. "If the Congress chooses to pass bills that are simply political statements, they will have chosen stalemate." He noted that "Democrats will control the House and Senate, and therefore we share the responsibility for what we achieve."

As if to punctuate that caution, Cindy Sheehan, an anti-war activist and mother of a soldier who died in Iraq, broke up a Capitol Hill Democratic news conference on the party's legislative priorities Wednesday, warning that party activists expect them to end the war in Iraq and confront the White House on a change in Iraq strategy. "We didn't put you in power to work with the people that have been murdering hundreds of thousands of people since they have been in power," Sheehan said. "We put you in power to be opposition to them finally and we're the ones who put them in power."

Achieving a congressional consensus on just what to do about Iraq and then imposing that vision on Commander in Chief Bush without seeming to threaten the safety of U.S. troops will be an enormous challenge.

Beyond vetoes, Bush has previously shown a willingness - even when the Congress was run by Republicans - to interpret legislation in ways clearly not intended by those who passed it. And he has used sometimes secret presidential orders to achieve goals at odds with congressional sentiment.

Considering all that, and the looming distractions of the 2008 presidential race, the congressional Democrats clearly face a strategic challenge. And the public, increasingly frustrated by what it views as a record of congressional failure, is unlikely to be patient with missteps. In a recent Gallup Poll only about 20 percent of likely voters said they approved of the performance of Congress.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

Historically, Congress has used its powers to pass laws, control federal spending and hold oversight hearings to check the authority of the president. Members of Congress took significant pride in the independence of their institution, shaped by the Founding Fathers to guard against an executive tyrant. Leaders in Congress, regardless of their party, have long stood ready to challenge the president or anyone else who challenged their prerogatives.

But a fierce political struggle in the 1990s followed by the trauma of the Sept. 11 attacks led to a dramatic shift in Congress from a decentralized, committee-based institution into a much more regimented one in which party increasingly trumps committee. The resultant changes in the legislative process - the demise of regular order, the decline of deliberation and the weakening of our system of checks and balances - have all compromised the role of Congress in the American constitutional system, according to two highly respected political scholars: Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank, and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right study center.

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