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Americans shouldn’t expect much relief from the nation’s problems for the next 14 months. That would mean solving immigration, health care, Social Security, Medicare and a dozen other domestic- and foreign-policy dilemmas that cry out for attention and reform.
Neither end of the historic thoroughfare called Pennsylvania Avenue, the one connecting Congress and the president, will be much open to the other until a year from January, when there are some new occupants in the U.S. Capitol and one in the White House.
That has become clear in the last months as lines between the two branches of American democracy have hardened to the point that President Bush and Democratic leaders are threatening actions that could shut down the government. Bush has promised to prove himself fiscally responsible by finally using his veto power to waylay any appropriations bills that exceed his budget, and Democratic leaders in Congress have pledged not to give him any more money for Iraq unless the troops are to be withdrawn by the end of next year.
To turn the cold war into a hot one, the president rejected a $606 billion bill to fund health, education and labor programs that was about $10 billion above what he had asked. It drew a return salvo from Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who said no more money for war without a timetable for ending it, in what was a clear attempt to appease voters who gave back his party control of Congress on the Iraq issue.
But the threat to withhold funds for Iraq and Afghanistan is as hollow as a politician’s heart. It just isn’t going to happen no matter how forcefully Democrats threaten it. They know full well that it would be a disaster for them to seem not to support the troops, particularly at election time. Neither House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., nor Reid can stand the heat that would bring. So a House-passed bill doing just that has no chance of succeeding — or weathering a veto if it did.
While the president is determined to recapture his party’s longtime, self-proclaimed leadership in fiscal responsibility, he can’t afford to deny a few dollars of excess in domestic spending while at the same time feeding more and more money into the voracious war machine. The fact is that it’s too late for this president to suddenly create an image of economic rectitude. If Bush had wanted that, he should have been using the veto years ago when he had a solid Republican majority in both houses that showed no fiscal restraint. He also should have listened to his wiser father, who a decade earlier saw the job of running Iraq as impossible and expensive and settled for eliminating Saddam Hussein as a threat to anyone but himself and his own people.
(Note to voters: When considering a choice for president, it would be wise to pick one who had some international experience. George H.W. Bush had plenty, while his son had none.)
With lawmakers incapable of coming to grips with anything controversial that may anger constituents and threaten their jobs, they do the predictable thing — nothing. The congressional motto really should be, “Let’s don’t but say we did,” which is what my mother used to say when listening to a proposal about which she had doubts. It is easy to find Congress a failing institution. That’s why the overall congressional approval ratings are lower than they are for the president.
Historically, the legislative and executive branches often have been at loggerheads, especially when members of the opposite party control them. Seldom, however, has there been such animosity and incivility and the prospect of inaction in solving the nation’s problems in the interest of gaining political advantage for the coming election. The last time the battle lines were so decidedly drawn came when then-Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich shut down the government in a tussle with an unpopular Bill Clinton and very quickly learned what a mistake he had made.
But to ease the despair one might feel over this comic opera, it might be well to remember the words of Will Rogers, who said that any day Congress didn’t take action was a good one and, about the presidency, that doing nothing most of the time is just what the people want.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)