No will to achieve

December 02, 2007

The unhappy exodus of GOP lawmakers from Congress lately undoubtedly reflects their party's slim chance of regaining majority status in next year's elections. But there is also a palpable frustration - even among lawmakers who are staying - that Congress is no place at the moment for politicians who want to get something done.

As lawmakers return to Washington tomorrow for the final weeks of this year's session, they face a daunting workload: spending measures financing most of the government, an energy bill to encourage conservation, a farm bill with major cleanup help for the Chesapeake Bay, legislation to limit the greenhouse emissions that speed global warming, an expansion of health care for working-class children and an 11th-hour rescue of middle-class taxpayers from an imminent tax increase.

Very little of this important work is likely to get done unless either President Bush or a two-thirds majority of Congress decides achievement trumps scoring some illusory political points. It would surely be in their interest to do so, however. At a time when Americans face war and recession, soaring fuel costs and declining home values in addition to life's other travails, a deliberately dysfunctional political leadership wins no points for anyone.

The constant conflict can't be blamed on simple numbers: a Republican president and a Congress run by Democrats who don't have enough votes to override his vetoes. Sure, Mr. Bush and the Democrats have jabbed and lunged at each other like schoolyard toughs, but it's time to grow up, already. Divided governments have produced major legislation as recently as the Clinton administration and can do so again if the political will is there.

Mr. Bush, in the twilight of his tenure, can be faulted in some cases for picking needless fights. A bipartisan majority of the Senate produced the children's health care bill that Mr. Bush decided to veto even before its details were known. His veto of the primary measure for financing social programs - and threats against most other spending proposals - stem from a phony campaign for fiscal conservatism, a doctrine he ignored during the first six years of his presidency and he ignores now on Iraq war spending.

At the same time, the Democrats have struggled to find support within their ranks to produce an energy conservation bill, letting a landmark Senate vote this year to raise fuel-efficiency standards for the first time in three decades languish for lack of a matching measure from the House. What's more, Democrats have proved just as slavish as Republicans to the demands of the farm lobby, refusing to turn off the spigot of outmoded, unnecessary crop subsidies, though Mr. Bush provided political cover by backing reforms.

And a majority in Congress deserted both Mr. Bush and a bipartisan band of senators who put together a comprehensive immigration reform measure this year that offered the best chance in a decade for federal action on this vexing national problem.

Perhaps most deplorable is that the only instance in which Congress rose up in unified indignation to override a presidential veto was prompted by the $23 billion water projects measure, which was larded with promises of pork that may never be fulfilled.

Yet it's not too late for Mr. Bush to burnish his legacy and lawmakers of both parties to earn a bid at re-election. They could do their jobs, work together to craft legislation and spending proposals that address America's needs as effectively as possible.

Go ahead. Surprise us.

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