Congress at Midterm: Still Work to Do

Long break pushes IRS reform, tobacco, into next session.

With a stack of difficult work still piled in its in-box, Congress is planning to flee Washington for its longest winter break in more than 30 years.

The size of impending issues is one reason for the rush to the exits. The proposed settlement with tobacco firms, the big transportation bill, and a number of other items will spark days of debate and produce contentious headlines. With the holidays approaching, why not postpone the fireworks until next year?

Top lawmakers also say they want their troops to get a long rest. A generous break means legislators "will have a life," says Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi.

But another cause of adjournment fever might be more political. In the wake of this year's balanced-budget agreement, public approval of Congress remains relatively high. The leaders of the 105th Congress may well want to wrap up the session in the context of that success.

More work would just mean more opportunity for an explosion of the partisan conflict that voters view so dimly, points out political scientist John Hibbing.

"If you really want Congress to be popular, you'd never have it come into session," he says.

Both houses were planning to adjourn soon after yesterday's big vote on whether to allow President Clinton "fast track" trade bill negotiating authority.

Jan. 26 is their tentative return date.

If lawmakers keep to that schedule they will get the longest such break in 32 years. Congress seldom adjourns before mid-to-late November - especially in years when there's no congressional election.

It's not as if there's nothing left for them to do. An effort to reform the Internal Revenue Service will be left hanging, with a bill having passed the House, but not the Senate. Conversely, legislation to reorganize Amtrak and stave off bankruptcy for the national passenger-rail service has passed the Senate, but it probably won't have time to make it through the House.

Other issues put off until next year include the big transportation bill, which proved too contentious for quick passage; campaign-finance reform, which chamber leaders have promised will arise again in March; and tobacco. The proposed settlement between tobacco firms and state attorneys general, who have sued the firms to recover smoking-related Medicare costs, may end up as the biggest issue of 1998.

GOP leaders insist the session has been a success despite all the things left unpassed.

House majority leader Dick Armey Saturday hailed the Republicans' "tremendous progress" on issues ranging from tax reform to education.

But outside experts say that in terms of legislative achievement the accomplishments of the first session of the 105th Congress might fairly be judged "modest."

The budget accord was likely its most historic legislation. It now seems set to accomplish its aims and balance the government's books for the first time in decades -- though it's the strong economy, not 1997 legislative action, that economists judge most responsible for that achievement.

Other than that, the session was notable for Senate ratification of the Chemical Weapons Treaty, the fast-track debate, and the abortive coup against House Speaker Newt Gingrich by a restive faction of his Republican caucus.

The session's relative lack of legislative production should be seen in historical context, says Charles Jones, a Congress expert.

The previous, 104th Congress was very productive, Jones notes, passing welfare reform, among other historic bills. "It isn't unusual following that to get a Congress in which substantially less is done," he says.

PERHAPS the most controversial activity of Congress in 1997 has been its investigations into campaign-finance abuses. So far these probes have failed to produce their promised results.

Sen. Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee suspended his Governmental Affairs Committee's campaign investigation on Nov. 1, acknowledging that at this stage he did not have "the caliber of witnesses and information" to continue.

His panel did not produce evidence of a concerted Chinese effort to influence the US government through campaign cash, as he had said it would. Nor did it produce incontrovertible evidence of illegal White House activity. It didn't spark passage of campaign-finance reform legislation.

But expectations for the Thompson probe may simply have been too high, due to both his statements and the fact that such inquiries are often compared with the gold standard of the Watergate hearings. If nothing else, Thompson's committee exposed the nature of the problem and stigmatized certain fund-raising behavior. Any future president will surely think long and hard about policies regarding personal contact with big donors.

The Democratic National Committee chairman, Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, blamed the Thompson hearings for producing mounting legal bills, which have helped push his party $15 million into debt. Counterpart House hearings, chaired by Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana, have experienced a chaotic organizational period. They will continue into next year, though they have been marked by even more partisan rancor than has the Senate effort.

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