Congress Goes Home

`WAIT till next year!'' The perennial cry of disappointed sports fans is the adopted motto of the 101st Congress. It reflects the chagrin expressed by many lawmakers at the end of Congress's first session, and their vow of greater achievements when they reassemble in January. The session wasn't a washout. Congress enacted a $159 billion bailout for the savings and loan industry, approved an $8.8 billion antidrug program, raised the minimum wage for the first time since 1981, cut a deal with the White House on contra aid, passed a $938 million aid package for Poland and Hungary, directed relief money to hurricane and earthquake victims, and tightened ethics standards while raising the pay of lawmakers, judges, and top government officials.

Even so, many legislators and observers regard the session that ended last Wednesday as a year of distractions and missed chances.

The biggest disappointment has to be Congress's continued failure truly and responsibly to cut the federal budget deficit. The $14.7 billion deficit-reduction plan that ultimately limped through relies on Gramm-Rudman's across-the-board cuts and accounting gimmicks that just postpone the day of reckoning. The legislators also left dangling important child-care and campaign-finance bills. They repealed, rather than amended, the flawed catastrophic-illness act, which might have made sense politically but not as national health-care policy.

Among the events that distracted Congress were time-consuming debates over flag burning, the capital-gains tax, John Tower's nomination as defense secretary, and the ethical lapses of former Speaker Jim Wright. Not that the furor over Mr. Wright's conduct was trivial: He erred and had to go. To the good, the House emerged with a strengthened leadership team. But the Wright affair clearly threw the House off stride.

Lawmakers have pledged to produce bigger results in '90. But how eager will they be to make tough choices on the deficit, military spending, and other key issues in an election year? Next year won't be better than this one without a greater willingness to step up to the plate.

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