'Did-Something' Congress

President Harry Truman fought his way to reelection in 1948 by crisscrossing the country criticizing the "do-nothing Congress." It just so happened that the legislative branch was controlled by Republicans for the first time since 1933. That Congress passed plenty of legislation: What it didn't do was enact several bills Truman wanted.

Taking a page from that book, House minority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri has spent the last 18 months calling the 105th Congress a "do-little" or "do-nothing" body. Last week he again borrowed language from his Show-Me State predecessor, labeling it "the worst Congress that's ever sat in this building."

What hasn't this Congress done? Well, it hasn't passed Democratic bills - after all, the majority is supposed to press its own agenda.

Democrats nationwide, understandably anxious to change the subject from President Clinton's difficulties, are now sounding the theme that not only has the GOP Congress done nothing, it's more interested in investigating the president's life than in dealing with America's problems.

That doesn't wash. An opposition party has the responsibility to push its own programs and criticize the majority whenever it can. Democrats would be derelict in their duty if they didn't. But to say this Congress has done nothing is not accurate. To label it obsessed by scandal to the exclusion of everything else is to argue that 535 politicians can't manage to debate and act on more than one subject at a time. They can - and did.

This Congress balanced the budget for the first time in almost 30 years. That effort got a lift from legislation President Bush signed in 1990 and President Clinton signed in 1993 (yes, without a single GOP vote). But the Republicans held the president's feet to the fire: The budget was balanced because of their determination - and a lot faster than might otherwise have happened. The result is a $71 billion surplus in the fiscal year just ended.

In eliminating the deficit, Congress also cut taxes, created the popular new Roth IRAs, and saved Medicare from bankruptcy for another 10 years. This year it took on an abusive and mismanaged Internal Revenue Service, passing citizen-friendly reforms.

In foreign policy, Congress ratified the chemical weapons treaty and voted to include Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic in NATO.

At this writing, it appears lawmakers and the White House are on the verge of a deal that would include an additional $18 billion in loan guarantees for the International Monetary Fund.

On education, Congress reformed special-education programs, lowered student-loan rates for college, and increased Pell grants.

On the environment, it authorized debt-for-nature swaps to help protect the tropical rain forest. As part of the massive (arguably over-massive) highways-and transit bill, it increased spending on air-quality programs.

It certainly wasn't a perfect Congress. It failed to wrestle out comprehensive tobacco legislation. The two chambers didn't agree on a campaign-finance reform package that had the potential to restore many voters' faith in the system.

Democrats blast Congress for not enacting a patients' rights law allowing patients to sue their managed-care organizations. Fair enough. But Republicans aren't saying do nothing: They drew up their own plan to strengthen patients' rights in response to constituent concerns.

Hardly a do-nothing Congress. Now it's up to the voters to decide whether they like what it did.

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