|April 25, 2006|
Don't Just Do Something, Congress, Sit There!
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Hey, United States Congress, nice to see you! Welcome back to Washington. Lose some weight?
Fresh from two weeks' spring break, you're looking tanned, rested and ready. We know, we know: you were busy holding town meetings, campaigning and raising money, and you'd rather we call your time off a "district work period." Potato, potahto, we say.
Anyway, not to worry, Congress. We kept the place exactly as you left it. Nothing has changed. Really. Nothing.
Immigration, big issue, everybody's talking about it -- zip, zero accomplished. Health care, Social Security, gas prices -- nada. And that $2.8 trillion budget you said you'd pass before Easter? Stacked up somewhere over Reagan National Airport. The deficit? Five feet high and rising.
"Can this Congress be saved?" the Miami Herald asked in an editorial Sunday. "The answer is Yes, but don't bet on it. Republicans, particularly in the lower chamber, are too set in their ways, and now their own house is divided over a variety of issues. That's why they couldn't pass a budget. Democrats, salivating over the prospect of retaking control after more than a decade in the wilderness, are reluctant to make compromises that can allow the GOP to take credit for effective leadership."
There are lots of other factors: the political weakness and unpopularity of the president, the resignation of Tom DeLay and the problems of other, ethically challenged members; exclusionary rules and practices that, for one, keep the minority out of conference committee meetings; a fierce and bitter partisanship that extends into even the Congressional Softball League.
Monday's Wall Street Journal reports: "During the off-season, a group of Republican teams seceded from the league after accusing its Democratic commissioner, Gary Caruso, of running a socialist year-end playoff system that gives below-average teams an unfair chance to win the championship." No word as to whether the new GOP league will have teams called the Indians or Braves, managed by Jack Abramoff. (I know, very un-PC; it's late.)
But I digress. Freshman Illinois Senator Barack Obama assessed congressional atrophy in the Chicago Tribune. "Things move extraordinarily slowly," he said. "Even when we do get a significant piece of legislation, it's not dealing with the healthcare crisis, it's not dealing with the education crisis, it's not addressing retirement security."
There's resistance to voting for anything that might tick off any significant percentage of a member's constituency. Dartmouth College government professor Linda Fowler suggested to the Tribune, "The members may in the long run decide it's better to do nothing than cast votes that may make them look bad."
On top of all that, there's the exhausting, three-day Congressional workweek -- Tuesday-Thursday -- when they're in session at all. Nice work if you can get it.
There are only 50 or so days left for this 109th Congress. It's scheduled to adjourn October 6th and between now and then there are breaks scheduled for May, July, August (the entire month) and September. No wonder members of Congress don't get along and nothing gets done -- they're almost never there.
According to the ineluctable Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, in the sixties and seventies, Congress was in session an average of 160 days a year. If they stick to the current schedule, the House of Representatives will have been in session 97 days this year, the smallest number since the 80th Congress in 1948 (one day in March they were in session for a grand total of five minutes). The number of committee and subcommittee meetings is heading for a record low, too.
Ornstein wrote in the Washington Post last month, "Mention the part-time nature of this Congress to many people, and the reaction is, 'Good, the less time they're in session, the less the danger to the country.' Wrong. Congress does not do less -- it has its full impact on society -- it just does things in a shoddier way.
"A part-time Congress in a country with a $13 trillion economy and federal budget near $3 trillion, in a globalized, technologically sophisticated world, is itself a danger to the checks and balances built into American democracy, and to high-quality, careful policymaking and oversight."
Yet the House and Senate act as if it was six decades ago. That aforementioned 80th Congress is the one Harry Truman famously dubbed the "do-nothing Congress." He made it a major campaign issue that year in his dramatic, come-from-behind victory over Thomas Dewey.
When he accepted the Democratic nomination, President Truman announced, "On the 26th day of July, which out in Missouri we call 'Turnip Day,' I am going to call Congress back and ask them to pass some of these laws they saying they are for in their platform. Now, my friends, if there is any reality behind that Republican platform, we ought to get some action from a short session of the 80th Congress. They can do this job in 15 days, if they want to do it. They will still have time to go out and run for office.
"... What that worst 80th Congress does in this special session will be the test. The American people will not decide by listening to mere words, or by reading a mere platform. They will decide on the record, the record as it has been written. And in the record is the stark truth, that the battle lines of 1948 are the same as they were in 1932, when the Nation lay prostrate and helpless as a result of Republican misrule and inaction."
The special, so-called "turnip session" (Truman was referring to Missouri folklore about the proper time of year to plant the turnip crop) achieved nothing and "Give 'em Hell" Harry was able to keep using it as proof of Republican obstinacy and ineptitude.
Nonetheless, this year, congressional leadership might want to consider pulling the trigger themselves, eliminating one of the upcoming recesses or calling a special session to contemplate at least part of the mountain of legislation that remains before it. With the public's approval of Congress as low as 23% in a recent Gallup poll, if Republicans want to staunch the midterm bleeding and hope, as the Wall Street Journal suggested, "to claim any meaningful legislative agenda," they had better at least look busy.
Otherwise, in November, Republican members -- and possibly other incumbents, as well -- will be placed on hiatus in spite of themselves. In the process they may take the blue ribbon away from that 1948 non-deliberative session Truman christened: Worst. Congress. Ever.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Copyright 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers
Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes a weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.
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