Gridlock Inside Congress

Divided government - Democrats in control of Congress, Republicans installed in the White House - is not the only cause of legislative inaction

BOTH President Bush and Gov. Bill Clinton tout their ability, with help from the voters, to end one of government's biggest problems - "gridlock." But it would be naive to think that control of the White House and Congress by the same party - whether Democratic or Republican - would solve the problem.

Certainly there are issues on which single-party control would result in some type of reform. United Democrats very likely would pass a family-leave bill similar to the one President Bush just vetoed, while united Republicans might well follow through on their pledge to expand tax credits for private schools, for example.

On a host of issues, however, where financial interests are at stake, the gridlock is not caused by a clash between a Democratic Congress and a Republican administration. Rather, Congress itself is logjammed owing to a distortion of loyalties by campaign contributions.

Environmental issues are one glaring example of the problem. Two years ago, in the spotlight of Earth Day, politicians were clamoring to propose and enact solutions to key environmental problems. Congress managed to pass, and Bush signed, a historic new Clean Air Act addressing the complex problems of acid rain, urban smog, air toxics, and ozone depletion. The word gridlock wasn't used to explain inaction, despite divided government.

But in the just-ended 102nd Congress, environmental issues fell by the wayside, not because of vetoes by Bush but because of the inability of the Democratic majority to agree on much-needed reforms.

For example, this year Congress was slated to renew the Clean Water Act, last passed overwhelmingly in 1987 over Ronald Reagan's veto. But controversies over how to deal with the wetlands issues - led by Rep. Jimmy Hayes (D) of Louisiana, who gathered more than 170 cosponsors on a bill to weaken current law - took Clean Water Act renewal off the congressional table before it was voted out of a single committee in either the House or Senate.

Similarly, proposals to require more-fuel-efficient automobiles never got to the president's desk, or even the floor of either house; they were blocked by Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan and several Democratic senators from the Midwest. Even a challenge to the president on his failure to support a strong international treaty to limit global-warming gases failed to move through Congress because of the clout of the auto industry.

Both houses of Congress took up efforts to reform the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the major federal law dealing with solid and hazardous waste, and bills were voted out of House and Senate committees. But the proposals fizzled in the face of opposition from environmental groups who found the proposed bipartisan solutions to be far too weak.

So when considering the government's failure to address major environmental problems, the finger of blame should also be pointed at Congress, not just at the White House.

The written and unwritten rules of Congress help maintain the gridlock. For example, the House leadership will often refuse to bring up controversial issues that "divide Democrats," even though at least 30 House Republicans will often support environmental issues and help ensure passage. And in the Senate, despite the consistent support from majority leader George Mitchell of Maine, a super-majority of 60 votes is required to bring up major environmental issues.

Thus, gridlock will not end simply if Mr. Clinton captures the White House and Congress remains controlled by the Democrats. (It's unlikely that the Republicans will capture both houses of Congress and retain White House control.)

Fortunately, Clinton has taken pro-environment positions on a number of issues that Bush has opposed or ignored, such as protecting wetlands, increasing fuel-efficiency standards, passing deposit laws to spur recycling, and expanding right-to-know laws.

But the auto companies, the chemical companies, the realtors, the beverage industry, the oil industry, and the rest of the well-financed interest groups will still have their grip on Congress. The real end to gridlock will come when lawmakers reject the influence of the special-interest groups who fund political campaigns and hover around Congress calling in their chits.

Perhaps the expected 120 to 150 new members will give the House the independence it needs. Perhaps the new crop of elected officials will feel free to vote with their conscience and their constituents, rather than their contributors. More-enlightened leadership from the White House on issues such as the environment can help spark change.

But let's not kid ourselves - much more needs to be done. First, we need more "green voters" who will hold Congress accountable on an environmental agenda. Second, we must remove private special-interest money and replace it with clean public campaign funds. And third, we need more genuine leadership at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Otherwise, even a united government will continue to disappoint the vast majority of the public that supports stronger laws to protect our health and environment.

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