On Capitol Hill, creative tension turns to gridlock
In the early hours of Feb. 24, as the Senate droned through an all-night session, a dozen police officers fanned through the empty hallways of the Capitol. Armed with arrest warrants, they searched for Republican senators refusing to show up for a midnight vote. It was the beginning of a surreal chapter in the annals of Congress. Idaho's Steve Symms spotted the posse and scampered out of view. Later, a cleaning woman tipped the detail off to the whereabouts of Bob Packwood of Oregon. Senator Packwood wedged himself against his office door, but the search team forced its way in. Four police officers carried him feet first into the Senate chamber.Skip to next paragraph
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The episode lasted about an hour, the climax of a still-unresolved struggle between Democrats and Republicans over a campaign-finance reform bill. But it reflected tensions that had been building for years. Democrats and Republicans in the United States Congress almost always seem to be at an impasse over something these days. As a result, Congress is having an increasingly hard time running itself and the rest of the country.
``There's a sense that the whole system is breaking down,'' says Sen. Daniel Evans of Washington, a first-term Republican who has announced his impending retirement.
The campaign finance reform debacle is hardly an isolated example of congressional ineffectuality. Congress spends much of the year in a state of studied inaction. Toward the end of the year, it does erupt in a frenzy of legislating. But at that point, lawmakers are voting for hundreds of pages of bills they have never read on subjects they may have never thought about.
Partly because of its penchant for procrastination and partly because of confrontations with the executive branch, Congress has been unable to fully finance the federal government before the start of the fiscal year - its primary task - for a decade. Sometimes, the federal government has had to close down parts of itself while Congress and the White House ironed out their differences.
The annual budget deficit has nearly tripled over that decade: Last year, it weighed in at $150.4 billion. Meanwhile, the national debt has topped $2.5 trillion. Yet lawmakers still tuck special projects for the home state into spending bills and special breaks for friends and allies into tax bills, at a cost to the taxpayer of billions.
Furthermore, the issues that divide the country tie the Congress in knots, despite the battalions of experts recruited onto congressional staffs. The House and Senate have had scores of votes pertaining to the Reagan administration's policy of aiding the Nicaraguan contras. Yet new requests for aid continue to bring on spasms of confusion in both chambers.
``The system is creaking,'' says Rep. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois, a 29-year veteran of the House of Representatives and chairman of that body's Ways and Means Committee, agrees: ``Things don't run as smoothly as they used to.''
Actually, Congress is still capable of striking achievement. It confounded the experts by enacting the 1986 law overhauling the nation's tax code, for example. Moreover, Congress has never been a model of efficiency; the Founding Fathers took care to build a certain amount of institutional friction into the system. ``People have always been wringing their hands about Congress,'' says Senate majority leader Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia.
Yet many lawmakers says changes in the national political climate and in Congress's structure in the past 15 years have turned the creative tension envisioned by James Madison into gridlock.