The ‘do nothing’ Congress

McClatchy Newspapers

Returning home now for a month of summer campaigning, congressional Republicans and Democrats are blaming each other for what some are calling the biggest "do-nothing" Congress since President Harry Truman hung that tag on lawmakers in 1948.

The criticism refers to the scant number of days the 109th Congress has spent on the job, and also to its failure to finish a litany of legislative priorities.

To be sure, there were some accomplishments. Congress overhauled pension protection for American workers, confirmed two Supreme Court justices, updated statutes governing bankruptcy and class-action lawsuits, and opened a big swath of the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling.

But it’s the unfinished business that stands out: legislative standoffs over immigration policy and a minimum-wage hike. No solutions for the fiscal crunch looming over Social Security and Medicare. No tightening of rules on lobbying despite a flurry of scandals. No decision on how much power a wartime president should have to spy on citizens or to try detainees in the war on terrorism.

Then too, perhaps the most politically significant consensus that Congress achieved this year _ bipartisan passage of legislation to expand embryonic-stem-cell research _ drew President Bush’s first veto.

As November’s congressional elections approach, pollsters say that voters are more inclined to blame the gridlock on the Republicans, who control both houses of Congress and the White House, than to punish the Democrats for obstruction.

Even so, many analysts say the criticism may be little more than a side issue in an election driven by deeper fears about the war in Iraq, chaos abroad and the painfully high price of gasoline. Not even a determined Congress could do much about those anytime soon.

"It’s not about accomplishment," said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who doesn’t face re-election this year but is closely watching his state’s race to replace Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton, who’s retiring. "It’s about Iraq. That’s the great discontent that is out there. Those events are beyond our control."

Thomas Mann, a veteran congressional scholar with the Brookings Institution, a center-left research center, agrees: "Basically, I don’t think anything Congress does from now out will have any material impact on the elections."

"What’s driving voters is the war in Iraq, high energy and health-care prices, and overwhelming pessimism by Americans," he said. "I have believed for many months this is one of those once-a-decade national tide elections in which we get a strong referendum on the party in power."

The last time that happened was 1994, when Republicans swept Democrats from power in both houses. In the hope of mirroring that rout, Democrats are hammering away at the "do-nothing Congress."

"When they (Republicans) get up and read their litany, it’s things that only a few narrow special interests care about, like a bankruptcy bill or class-action reform," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "Anything major that affects average Americans and makes their lives better, they haven’t been able to get done, and I think people know that."

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., finds such Democratic spin exasperating.

"To the extent major issues have not moved, it’s primarily because they’ve been filibustered by the Democrats," Gregg said. "It’s sort of like somebody who killed their parents going to the court claiming that they should get some sort of special dispensation because they’re orphans."

A Republican plan to increase the federal minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 was blocked last week in the Senate by a Democratic filibuster, because it was attached to a controversial tax break for heirs of multimillion-dollar estates. Two Republicans crossed party lines to provide the crucial votes to block it.

One of the two, Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, said he supported a minimum-wage increase but didn’t think a nation with wartime debt and a pending wave of baby-boom retirements could afford to lose the hundreds of billions of dollars that cutting the estate tax would cost. He said he was frustrated with both parties for putting election considerations ahead of long-term policy needs.

"I think a lot of people are watching what’s going on out there," Voinovich said. "They know what this is all about _ politics _ for everybody. And the public is saying, who’s paying attention to the stuff we should really be paying attention to?"