Congress, free at last

IF nothing else, the newly adjourned 99th Congress has proved that when it really gears up, it can crank out a lot of legislation in a hurry -- much of it commendable. Congress has also proved, however, that getting a lot of important things done is not the same thing as getting the most important thing done. It passed significant bills on sticky issues such as illegal immigration and the environment. It responded to public concern by cranking through an antidrug bill. It found time to declare the rose the national floral emblem. And some weeks ago -- now ancient history, given the fast pace in Washington of late -- Congress also passed, without any particular public pressure, the most significant overhaul of the tax system since World War II.

But the two houses made virtually no progress on controlling the federal budget deficit. Indeed, the most significant step they took was to raise the debt ceiling. And although tax reform was to be ``revenue neutral,'' the new bill will cost the federal treasury several billion dollars during Fiscal 1988. The only thing to be said in favor of this inability to control federal spending is that, given the sluggishness of the economy, the stimulus of a budget deficit may be less damaging now than it would have been in a more robust boom cycle.

Some highlights of the session:

Immigration reform. Both houses finally agreed on legislation that would grant amnesty to many illegal aliens already here but impose sanctions on employers who knowingly hire those not in this country legally. Amnesty is the sensible and compassionate approach for those already here, and sanctions against employers seem a more feasible -- and humane -- approach than turning the Rio Grande into another Berlin Wall.

Opponents have argued that employer sanctions would lead to massive job discrimination against Hispanics, but on the contrary, Hispanics in the United States legally should benefit, along with other legal residents, from more opportunities and higher wages if the pool of illegals is at least restricted. The new law, though, will pressure Mexico to put its house in order to give more of its people economic opportunity at home, and pressure the US to help Mexico do so.

Drug bill. The legislation actually passed -- which stiffens penalties for certain drug offenses and authorizes $1.7 billion for drug law enforcement and drug-abuse treatment programs -- is most notable for the amendments that got away, including an ill-conceived death-penalty provision. The relatively trivial (by Washington standards) funding demonstrates how, with so much of the budget untouchable for reasons of statute or politics, Congress has very little budgetary room to maneuver in launching new programs.

Superfund. A compromise for raising the money for the fund that cleans up toxic waste sites passed overwhelmingly in both houses. After strong pressure from Congress, the President dropped his veto threat and commendably signed the bill.

For a number of well-known veterans in Congress, the 99th will be their last -- not only Speaker of the House Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., but Sens. Thomas Eagleton, Barry Goldwater, Gary Hart, Paul Laxalt and Charles Mathias Jr. Whatever their political bent, they can leave office knowing that the 99th -- for all its flaws in failing to deal with the deficit -- did manage to enact legislation in a number of controversial areas. No small feat.

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