House Democrats Running Aground on Legislative Initiatives

THIS was a week of Sisyphean frustration for Congress's ruling Democrats, particularly House Speaker Tom Foley.

After being beaten up over the way they have been running the House - particularly its bank and post office - the Democrats began to fight back.

The House leadership offered up a package of reforms to depoliticize the running of the House's nonlegislative activities, incorporating many of the minority Republicans' suggestions. The Democrats also decided to go on the offensive on the question of privileges, turning attention to executive-branch perks.

But the headline gods were not with them. Alongside stories like "In Fight over Privileges, Spotlight's Now on Bush" ran stories like "Audit of House Post Office Finds Inadequate Controls Over Money," in the New York Times.

It seems the General Accounting Office, the investigative branch of Congress, sent auditors for an unannounced look at the House post office's books last week. Auditors found that bookkeeping practices there were still inadequate, even after all the allegations of embezzlement and campaign-money-laundering of the past few weeks.

In addition, Republicans came back at what the Democrats felt was a generous proposal on reform of House administration with criticism that it did not go far enough. The Democratic leadership proposed to eliminate some patronage positions by creating a new job, director of nonlegislative and financial servces. Democrats would allow the House Republican leader to have veto power over the appointment.

The mess at the House bank also returned to the headlines with the official release of the top 22 abusers of the bank, which was allowing members penalty-free overdrafts. The release had been delayed as members appealed their records at the sloppily-run bank. Economic proposals fail

Topping the list were former Rep. Tommy Robinson, a Democrat-turned-Republican from Arkansas. He wrote 996 bad checks during a 39-month period. Rep. Robert Mrazek (D) of New York came in second with 920 bad checks. He is considering quitting the Senate race and giving up his House seat.

Lost in the headlines about the bank and the post office was more bad news about the Democratic leadership: It failed resoundingly this week to keep its economic program alive.

Last week, the Democrats could not muster even a majority in a vote to override President Bush's veto of the Democrats' middle-class tax relief plan. This week, the leadership failed in its effort to shift $7 billion in defense money to domestic concerns.

The Democrats had hoped to score points against Republicans in this election year on economic issues. But after their hard-fought success in getting a majority to sign on to middle-class tax relief, the Democratic leadership has since not been able to get a majority on much of anything.

Speaker Foley tried to defend Wednesday what he did achieve.

"I am proud we passed the bill on tax relief for the middle class ...," said Foley. "But nobody ever claimed that we would have a two-thirds vote to override a veto." Veto of spending bill

Bush, as expected, vetoed the Democrats' bill because it raised taxes on the wealthy.

The Democratic leadership's failure even to come close to a majority on the bill to shift spending from defense to domestic programs provided a more stunning example of how the House Democrats have run aground in their legislative program. The bill was voted down 238 to 187.

Originally, the Democrats were expected to gain passage easily. But concern among some that their vote for the bill would be equated with reduced defense spending in their home districts led to defections. The House leadership postponed the vote four weeks in a row as it tried to muster support.

In the end, 75 Democrats voted with 162 Republicans against the so-called "walls bill." The legislation would have torn down the fire walls agreed to in the 1990 budget agreement, which strictly divided the budget into three categories - domestic, international, and defense - and forebade savings in one category from being used in another. Bush has last word

Proponents of tearing down the walls argued that the end of the Cold War had rendered the agreement obsolete and that the "peace dividend" should be used to boost domestic programs. Opponents of the walls bill favored using the savings to reduce the budget deficit, which is edging toward $400 billion, the original purpose of the budget agreement.

The House also failed this week to pass legislation extending funding for the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC), the government agency that is bailing out failed savings and loans. The bill, backed by President Bush, would have allowed funding for the RTC through September. Democrats blamed the President for not pushing for the bill's passage.

But Bush gets the last word this week. Long after members have gone home for the weekend, Bush is expected to deliver a speech today on how Congress should be reformed.

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