Will a wait-and-see Congress hold back Obama?

December 14, 2008|By Janet Hook | Janet Hook,Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - The collapse of legislation to bail out the U.S. auto industry is a fitting end to this year in Congress - and a warning to President-elect Barack Obama that even larger Democratic majorities next year won't guarantee smooth sailing for his ambitious agenda on economics and other issues. Polarized, beset by crises and preoccupied with ideological and regional politics, this Congress followed a pattern familiar in the past decade. It railed and wrangled over the nation's toughest problems but in the end failed to advance solutions.

Wrestling with health care, costly dependence on foreign oil and the greatest economic crisis in more than a half-century, the House and Senate have floundered into stalemate. Meanwhile, the economic woes have gone international.

The House and Senate did pass major legislation this year in response to the nation's economic problems - but for the most part, they did not act until a crisis could hardly be ignored. Each time, lawmakers had to struggle to reach agreement. Sometimes, as in the auto bailout, the legislation was not even approved.

Economists reviewing congressional efforts have not raved. The federal fund to subsidize affordable housing has had few takers. The $700 billion effort to shore up the financial services industry took a drastic change in course - without congressional input and only after about half the money was spent. Skepticism about those efforts contributed mightily to the Senate's rejection of the auto bailout bill.

"They have really been behind the curve," Dean Baker, co-director of the Center on Economic and Policy Research, said of Congress. "But they have been better than Bush."

Analysts such as Baker blame President George W. Bush for failing to exercise stronger leadership on the economy. They are hopeful that the federal government will be more effective when Obama is sworn in as president with a larger Democratic majority in the House and Senate. But Obama inherits a political and economic legacy that could make it hard for him to extract timely, effective policies from Congress.

"The real question is: Will Congress be Congress and slow things down, muck things up and muck things up with too much local politics," said Robert Reischauer, head of the Urban Institute and former director of the Congressional Budget Office.

The challenges Obama and the next Congress face are great. The sheer magnitude of the nation's economic turmoil confounds experts in both political parties.

Congress' response will surely have to be bipartisan, analysts say, but there is no consensus about what the federal government should do.

And Congress will continue to be driven by many of the political dynamics Obama campaigned against: reflexive partisanship and parochialism that make it hard to solve fundamental problems.

Democrats will have a larger but still narrow majority in the Senate next year. There is no guarantee that Republicans cannot block Obama's initiatives with filibusters.

The political fundamentals of how Congress works are timeless and bipartisan: Most lawmakers are driven first by their instinct for electoral survival. They lard urgent legislation - like the economic stimulus bill Obama wants to pass early next year - with local projects that help them win support back home rather than advance long-term needs.

Congress also tends to be reactive, rather than anticipating problems. Capitol Hill did not address the country's economic problems until people lost homes in foreclosure, workers lost jobs and Wall Street firms came to the brink of bankruptcy.

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