The last Congress of this century passed a federal budget last week that, in theory, should reflect the priorities of Americans going into the next century.
But the Marx brothers way that the Republicans and Democrats reached a compromise - seven weeks after the start of the new fiscal year - must have many people wondering if their representatives truly understand their priorities. Too many of the budget battles were really about which side could find an issue to use as a TV campaign ad in political campaigns.
Yes, Americans are conflicted in their priorities, but they want leaders to go beyond media spin and "wedge" issues to pull them together as a country. That assigned task should be easy in an era of surplus revenues!
How the budget sausage is made in that sausage factory called Washington can make all the difference in where the United States is heading. But this year's acrimony - as each side played to polls and microphones - can only force Americans to find solutions elsewhere, such in the courts or, perhaps wisely, in local government and the private sector.
In the end, the debate over national spending was shaped by two factors: continuing distrust of a president who survived impeachment and a five-year-old Republican "revolution" that's fizzling in a booming economy.
Ironically, it was the president who become more fiscally conservative while the Republicans, especially over the key issue of tapping Social Security funds, became less trusted.
Even though the Republicans control the 106th Congress, their slim majorities in both houses make them vulnerable to a Democratic Party that still tries to set the national agenda on social issues. And despite President Clinton's attempt to solve long-range fiscal problems, liberal Democrats still design budget-busting programs.
Voters can resolve such problems by electing leaders less interested in divisive issues than in cooperation.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society