The Cranky Congress

MEMBERS of Congress heading home to try to win reelection - and their political opponents - should not be expected to utter dispassionate appraisals of the just-concluded session. Democrats, who held majorities in both houses as well as the presidency, will point to significant legislation that has passed and blame obstructionist Republicans for notable failures. Republicans will counter that their opponents can't have it both ways - claiming success while assigning blame for failure - and are ready to take credit for killing what they see as bad bills.

This Congress did lurch to an ungainly halt with members in a particularly mean-spirited, disillusioned, and even fearful mood. Members seemed eager to get out of town and onto the hustings to defend themselves to restive voters. When the air went out of the health-care-reform balloon over the summer, the legislative agenda seemed to go limp with it.

True, at the end the president was distracted by Haiti. But, more important, Republicans caught sight of the potential in the November elections - no need to compromise when a much more conservative Congress was but weeks away. Smelling the blood in the water, they vigorously, even gleefully, blocked the administration's agenda.

Still, a clear-eyed look at this Congress shows the ``do nothing'' label to be misleading. Especially in 1993, much was enacted: a tight budget, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Brady bill (requiring background checks on handgun purchasers), a national service program for young Americans, and aid to Russia. Even in 1994, Congress managed to pass an education bill, a crime bill, and banking reform. GATT, the politically volatile trade accord favored by many on both sides of the aisle, may still pass after the November election.

There was no reform of the cleanup of toxic waste sites (Superfund) and no reform of antiquated mining laws. But the California desert protection bill passed. A serious effort at campaign finance reform stumbled when the two parties and two houses couldn't agree on just what kinds of changes to make.

Most troubling to those who care about our political process should be the way in which this Congress conducted its business. Bipartisanship seemed to reach a new low; even basic civility was often absent. In the Senate, filibusters were used to block bills 45 times, in contrast to an average of five per year in the 1970s.

If Republicans even come close to winning their hearts' dream - majorities in both houses - they may return to Washington full of smiles and good will, ready to move on an agenda they then would share, if not control.

But would Democrats be ready to forgive and forget, or just adopt their opponents' obstructionist strategy?

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