Sad legacy of the GOP Congress

Gridlock was good to Congress under the Republicans. With Democrat Bill Clinton in the White House, it produced such landmarks as the welfare reform act of 1996 and a string of budget surpluses.

But with a Republican president in the White House discipline began breaking down. The surpluses vanished, spending soared, traditional courtesies to the minority party were ignored and a series of ethics scandals culminated in the resignation of four Republican House members this year.

In November, the voters ended the Republicans control of Congress and maybe just in time. In 12 years of GOP control of the House and 10 of the Senate, the 109th that just adjourned was the worst yet.

Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., called it "the most useless Congress in modern times." That might be dismissed as partisan excess except that many Republicans share his assessment.

This Congress finally ended in the wee hours of Saturday with the leadership congratulating itself on passing a $45 billion tax and trade bill, filled with unrelated issues, and several major health care initiatives.

That’s fine but it’s a sloppy way to legislate — who knows what all is in the tax and trade bill — and it should have been earlier in the year. And it could have been except that Congress wasn’t around to do it. The lawmakers were in session just over 100 days, fewer even than the notorious "Do Nothing" Congress of 1948. A three-day work week and generous recesses will do that.

The incoming House Democratic leader provoked muffled protests when he announced five-day work weeks for next year. We’ll see if that lasts. Institutional inertia can be hard to overcome.

Most egregiously, Congress failed in its principal constitutional duty, appropriating the money to run the government. Of the 13 spending bills that fund the government’s operations and that are supposed to be passed by Sept. 30 at the latest, Congress has just passed two.

One of the lawmakers’ last acts was to pass a temporary, stop-gap measure funding the government until Feb. 15, meaning the ineptitude of the 109th will spill over into the 110th.

Congressional Democrats won’t have to do much more than show up and do the statutory minimum of work to surpass the bar the Republicans have set for them.