A hardball 108th Congress

Despite intense partisanship and a narrow margin of Republican control, the 108th Congress moved quickly when it had to, especially in its last hours of legislating before November elections.

This week, Congress sent to the president the most sweeping rewrite of the corporate tax code in 20 years, $14.5 billion in hurricane and drought aid, and $33.1 billion in spending for homeland security in 2005.

Most significantly, both the House and Senate left Washington after voting on the recommendations of the 9/11 commission, which have dominated the legislative agenda ever since the report's release in July. The reforms, which would overhaul intelligence gathering, may be finalized before the election if a compromise is reached.

But a decade of legislating in a closely divided Congress has taken its toll on the culture of Capitol Hill, where deadlock has become a way of life and personal relations - the vital element of an effective Congress - often turned toxic. A Senate minority leader was refused admittance to a conference of which he was a member during the 108th Congress, and a House GOP chairman summoned the Capitol Police to evict minority Democrats from a committee room.

House leaders in opposing parties rarely speak. And those few members who do work across party lines often feel a chill in their own caucuses. Even in the clubby Senate, senators who once prefaced public references to each other with "the distinguished senator," "my good friend," or simply "senator," now jump straight to "he" or "she" - a small point to outsiders, but a sign of how worn the patina of civility has become. The House canceled its biannual, bipartisan civility retreat next year due to lack of interest.

"This Congress leaves a legacy of extreme partisanship, deadlock, and delay. It's an institution that hasn't addressed the question of having enough resources to fight a war," says James Thurber, a political scientist at American University in Washington.

What wasn't done

In this Congress, longstanding efforts to pass a national energy policy, a highway bill, a patients bill of rights, reform of welfare, bankruptcy, toxic cleanups, corporate-pension rules, and tort liabilities. Nor did this Congress deal with the need to raise the debt limit or complete more than four of 13 must-pass spending bills.

The budget process, the culmination of a quarter century of effort to check the executive branch, broke down. Aggressive oversight languished. At the same time, the procedural arsenal to obstruct action in Congress was vastly enhanced - setting a precedent for the future.

In the House, Democrats were all but shut out from offering amendments on the floor. (When Democrats controlled the House with large majorities, as they did for much of the past half century, resort to such procedures was less necessary, because minority amendments had little prospect of passing.) Now in the Senate, Democrats used the threat of filibuster to make 60 votes the new "supermajority" threshold for judicial nominations or major legislation.

"In the past, senators were reluctant to use the filibuster, because it constituted a nuclear weapon. Now, it's become a conventional weapon: We now have a de facto supermajority rule in the Senate," says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

Senate Democrats raised the bar on President Bush's judicial nominations to 60 votes by use of the filibuster. Republicans say it's a dangerous precedent that could continue if Democrats ever take back the Senate. Democrats say they're just responding to a GOP strategy to exclude their voice. "The Republican Senate leadership has destroyed virtually every custom and courtesy that used to help create and enforce cooperation and civility in the confirmation process," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, at a committee meeting last month. The supermajority requirement also sank Senate efforts to cap medical malpractice awards.

Role of special interests

In the absence of budget constraints, proposed legislation on issues ranging from highways to national energy policy were stuffed with giveaways to special interests, and eventually sank of their own weight. The Senate added $62 billion to the president's request for a transportation bill, now more than a year overdue for reauthorization. While a $31 billion energy bill was trimmed back in 2004, it still derailed over a demand of the GOP House leadership to protect makers of the gasoline additive MTBE from liability. Senate Democrats and GOP moderates blocked the bill over objections to the waiver.

In addition to expanding the federal deficit, the corporate largess of the 108th Congress fueled criticism that the legislative branch had been bought off by special interests.

Members on both sides of the aisle say it could be the most unsettling legacy of the this Congress.

"We have a systematic dilemma in both parties that is very deep. Both parties are vulnerable to conflicts apparent in large financial giving, and neither party is better than the other on this," says Rep. Jim Leach (R) of Iowa.

Highlights of 108th US Congress

Personal taxes

Recently extended tax cuts for married couples and families with kids. In 2003 cut dividend and capital-gains taxes.

Corporate taxes

This week agreed to repeal tax subsidies for exporters, which violated global trade rules. Bill offers new business tax breaks.

Healthcare

In 2003 added a prescription-drug benefit to Medicare.

Tobacco

Agreed this week on a $10 billion buyout of tobacco farmers.

DNA tests

Agreed last week to expand DNA tests to catch the guilty and clear the innocent.

Still pending this year:

Spy agencies

Reconciling differences between House and Senate bills to overhaul US intelligence agencies and address failures exposed by the Sept. 11 attacks.

Spending

Failed to agree on a 2005 budget. Only four of 13 key appropriations bills have been passed. Lawmakers plan to return after elections to bundle remaining bills into an omnibus package.

Debt limit

After the elections, Congress will also have to raise the $7.384 trillion debt ceiling to avoid government default.

Sources: Reuters, Congressional Quarterly

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