Slowest Congress since '60s - budget battle blamed
Washington — Congress, which last year made history with dramatic spending and taxing cuts , has slowed down to a near stall. Not only have the lawmakers failed to reach a budget agreement, but they have yet to enact one major piece of legislation this session.
Although Congress rarely races off the mark, the start of this session is the slowest in recent memory. ''The committees just haven't reported out that much legislation,'' notes secretary of the Senate William F. Hildenbrand, who calls the pace the most leisurely since before the Vietnam war.
''It's not going to be a very active legislative year,'' says an aid for the House Democratic leadership.
The major reason is the economy. With the nation in a steep recession, Congress is focusing on the budget. And without an agreement on that most central issue, almost everything else is put on hold.
Along with the economy, lawmakers also are looking out for their political futures. Elections come next fall, and now is hardly the time to push for controversial bills that might offend some voters. So some of the hottest issues are buried safely in committees.
Another reason for legislative inactivity is that conservative Republicans are in control, and they have historically introduced fewer new laws.
Among the bills now lingering on Capitol Hill:
* The Clean Air Act. Originally due for a rewrite by last fall, this law has already required a one-year extension until next October. Both House and Senate committees are haggling over reforming the highly complex act, which is loved by the public according to polls and scorned by much of industry.
* Abortion ban. Despite the fact that anti-abortion senators hold key committee positions, the outlook for passing a ban looks murky. Abortion foes are sharply divided over what legislation to seek. The Senate Judiciary has voted out a constitutional amendment which could come to the floor at any time, but it is given almost no chance of winning the two-thirds majority required.
Meanwhile, anti-abortion legislation is bottled up in an unfriendly House Judiciary Committee.
* Antibusing measure. The most stringent school busing ban ever passed by the Senate awaits action in the House. It will have a long wait, since Rep. Robert W. Kastenmeier (D) of Wisconsin chairs the Judiciary subcommittee that now has the bill that includes the ban.
Representative Kastenmeier opposes the antibusing amendment which would bar courts from using busing as a desegregation tool, if the children are taken more than five miles or 15 minutes from home. A Judiciary Committee aide says no action is planned for the Senate-passed bill.
It will take heavy pressure from busing foes to force the measure in its present form to the House floor.
* Voting Rights Act. Probably the most likely major bill to see early action, the Voting Rights Act renewal won overwhelming passage in the House and has 65 cosponsors among the 100 senators. A controversy over some of the wording has slowed down its passage. Conservative Republicans and the Reagan administration are trying to change the House-passed version. The Senate Judiciary Committee, which is sharply divided, is scheduled to act on it this week.
Hailed for giving the vote to hundreds of thousands of Southern blacks once denied the right, the renewel of the act is a highly charged issue. It almost certainly will be renewed this year.
If so, the bill will be among the few to win final passage. Senate Secretary Hildenbrand argues that the sparce legislative calendar has a bonus for lawmakers. Often they have Fridays and Mondays off, giving even the Westerners a chance to go home and visit with constituents.
Are taxpayers getting their money's worth out of this session on Capitol Hill? ''They're always people who say you're much better off when Congress is not in session,'' he says in jest, adding more seriously that ''now we're doing only those things that really need to be done.''