Why There's So Much Left in Congress's 'In' Box

With thousands of bills, even issues with bipartisan support didn't get resolved.

When it comes to legislation, the 105th Congress may end up being more notable for what it didn't do than for what it did.

Sure, lawmakers struck a big budget deal with the White House before fleeing town to campaign. Earlier this year they passed a landmark transportation-spending bill. Overall, the 105th has enacted at least 51 major bills into law, according to a Library of Congress legislative summary.

But lots of big bills were blocked, voted down, left in the "In" box, or otherwise killed off this year. From the antitobacco effort to deregulation of the electric industry, the undone work covered a surprisingly broad range of issues - and included priorities from both parties.

The reasons for the carnage include bad timing, personality and turf clashes, and political bumbling, as well as simple opposition, say some experts.

"There were lots of big things that people expected to get done that didn't get addressed," says Paul Hendrie, communications director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

This does not mean the GOP-led 105th necessarily deserves the "do-nothing" label that the Democratic House leadership has attempted to slap on it.

Beginning with last year's historic balanced-budget deal, the 105th has taken some major legislative steps.

Nor does simply leaving some legislation lying around unaddressed count as unusual in Washington. Paper flows here like water down the Potomac, after all. It would take 100 Congresses to fully debate all the bills introduced every year.

Try again next year

The Library of Congress legislative Web site lists at least 4,846 bills introduced in the House for the 105th Congress. Legislation that never even made it to the congressional equivalent of first base - a committee hearing - ranges from an effort by Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia to protect the voting rights of homeless citizens to a bill introduced by House Rules Committee chairman Rep. Gerald Solomon (R) of New York that would have required random drug testing in the executive branch of government.

The Senate, for its part, has seen at least 2,639 bills introduced during the tenure of the 105th. Neither this total nor the House's total includes the thousands of small resolutions calling for the naming of a national Beagle Appreciation Day or some such symbolic gesture.

Rather, what is unusual about this year's busted bills is that they included some big issues that had at least a semblance of bipartisan appeal. Among them:

* Antismoking legislation. At one point, congressional action on a bill arising from the landmark agreement between state attorneys general and the tobacco industry seemed sure to be the defining act of the 105th. But tobacco foes toughened the bill in Congress, the industry walked away from the deal, and the effort fell apart.

* Health-maintenance-organization (HMO) regulation. Dubbed the next big thing after tobacco, the HMO bill stalled as Democrats and the GOP fought over the extent to which it would oversee the industry.

* Campaign-finance regulation. Though popular with the public, and with much of the rank and file of both parties, an attempt to reform the way elections are paid for was stopped by solid opposition from the GOP Senate leadership.

* Banking deregulation. A bill that would tear down the legal walls now separating banks, brokerage houses, and insurance companies is the Susan Lucci of legislation. Ms. Lucci is a soap opera actress who is a perennial Emmy favorite, yet never wins; banking deregulation is an issue that has been at the top of the congressional agenda for a decade, yet never passes.

* Electricity deregulation. A congressional vote on whether to eliminate the monopoly most suppliers of electrical power enjoy at one time seemed likely. Fighting between different industry factions has slowed the effort.

Some Democrats blame President Clinton's legal woes for inaction on these issues, saying they have absorbed lawmakers' time and attention.

Era of big bills gone?

But prospects for many of these bills were dimming long before Kenneth Starr's report hit Washington. Other lawmakers say that the major accomplishments of the 105th, particularly the balanced budget and NATO expansion, took the pressure off and allowed members to lose focus. Furthermore, with a relatively narrow majority, the GOP leadership can't just force the legislative machinery to run on time.

And some experts claim that the era of big bills, per se, has passed. As Clinton has prospered in the polls by pushing small issues, so Congress may turn to small, yet popular, efforts such as IRA savings-account expansions.

"We've reached a period where incremental legislation has become the norm," says Richard Semiatin, a government professor at American University here.

Still, tobacco, banking, electricity, and HMOs - not to mention campaign finance - are sure to be the subjects of renewed legislative efforts in the 106th.

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