Winding Down the 103rd: Big Ideas, Bumpy Ride

HEALTH-CARE reform is dead. Campaign finance reform? Not this year. Congress has also given up on a sweeping reform of the telecommunications industry and on an effort to update a 122-year-old law governing the mining of federal lands, a priority of environmentalists.

Congress even abandoned a bill to reform itself.

As the calendar winds down on the 103rd Congress, major pieces of legislation are biting the dust daily, leaving behind a trail of exasperated Democrats and satisfied Republicans.

A smattering of successes have dotted the congressional landscape. The crime bill passed. Last week, the House passed lobbying reform, and the Senate is expected to this week.

The same holds true for a $13 billion education-aid bill. And for the first time since 1948, all 13 spending bills were signed into law before the start of the new fiscal year Oct. 1.

But the dominant mood among the majority Democrats is summed up by Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts: ``I'm furious, as frustrated as I've ever been down here.... There's a very specific hurt-the-president strategy going on that's reckless and dangerous.'' (Environmentalists lament gridlock, Page 6.)

With Democrats in charge of the White House and both houses of Congress, this was supposed to be the end of gridlock.

Last year, Congress kept a steady flow of legislation heading for the president's desk, such as a budget bill, the family leave act, and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Rep. Barney Frank, another Massachusetts Democrat, argues this has been one of the most productive Congresses when one totals all the bills that have been signed. He acknowledges, though, that as this session comes to a close things have ``broken down somewhat.''

Even members of the president's own party have given him fits. Sen. Ernest Hollings (D) of South Carolina decided to hold in committee a bill ratifying a key international trade agreement, effectively denying the president a hoped-for major legislative victory before the November elections.

The bill does not include the provisions protecting US textile producers that Senator Hollings had hoped for.

Tony Blankley, spokesman for the House's No. 2 Republican, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, argues that it's not partisanship that has killed legislation, it's deficiencies in the bills.

``Take health care,'' he says. ``It didn't get to a vote because it was unfit to be voted upon. The public didn't want it.''

Campaign finance reform, which would have established some public financing of congressional campaigns and voluntary spending limits, has been a perennially tough issue and will be tough to pass under the best of circumstances, even though it is one bill that has a shot of convincing voters that business as usual is changing in Washington.

``Mining and telecom, one can point out deficiencies there, too,'' says Mr. Blankley. ``Still, we passed deficient legislation in the past.''

Blankley blames the White House in part for what he calls ``gross negligence'' in its legislative dealings. On the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), Blankley says his boss started raising red flags to administration officials in August about how to work Capitol Hill on the issue, but to no avail.

Norman Ornstein, a scholar on Congress at the American Enterprise Institute, says this Congress is in part paying a price for trying to accomplish so much. ``If it had been a more passive Congress, there would have been less-visible failures,'' he says.

The end of the 103rd Congress is typical in its flurry of activity. What's different, says Mr. Ornstein, is that members have discovered that the voters have already given up on Congress - this point was made abundantly clear during the most recent recess - and that no matter what they do, the voters will perceive failure.

So instead of fighting to the final moment to pass bills, members are more willing than usual to declare legislation dead and hurry home to campaign, especially with so many incumbents in danger of losing their seats.

Congress also got bogged down, first on the crime bill, then on Haiti, at a time when the congressional leadership should have been pressing forward on a range of bills. On top of that, House Speaker Tom Foley (D) of Washington is in danger of losing his seat, a battle that has distracted him from his leadership duties here.

What impact will this perception of a failing Congress have on voters in November? White House officials argue that incumbent Democrats can counter this notion of failure by picking from the long list of bills passed and highlighting those that matter to their voters, such as crime.

Senator Kerry is less sanguine: ``Obviously some people will lose who shouldn't.''

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