If ever there was a time that America needed the Senate to play its characteristic role of stable, pragmatic policymaker, it is now. Fresh from its spring vacation, the Senate has before it some of the nation's most important legislation in decades. Through the Contract With America, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has focused on critical problems that must be solved for future prosperity: a chronic federal budget deficit, government regulation that has gone too far, a legal system that is too easily abused, and environmental laws that are too often byzantine and costly to business.
Unfortunately, the House has drafted a mishmash of sloppy proposals that offer unrealistic and sometimes contradictory solutions. The Senate, a more deliberative legislative body, would normally serve to modify the unreasonable and take moderate, bipartisan steps to remedy the wrongs of the status quo.
Sadly, its leaders appear to have another agenda. The siren call of Presidential politics is poisoning the legislative atmosphere of the Senate. Some aspirants to the White House are increasingly running from responsibility in their run for power. Because the nomination process is set up so that courting the extreme right seems to be essential to gaining the nomination, Presidential hopefuls appear willing and ready to sacrifice the nation's well-being in the process. It is a shameful spectacle.
Most disappointing is Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), a respected lawmaker who has built a lifelong reputation as a principled pragmatist who is more interested in solving complicated policy problems than scoring political points.
In his bid to preempt conservative firebrands such as Senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) and Representative Robert K. Dornan (R-Calif.), Dole has veered rightward, especially on critical economic and regulatory issues. True Senate conservatives believe that there is nothing more important to the fiscal security of America than balancing its budget. But doing this while also cutting taxes sharply defies fiscal logic. In the past, Dole has been a deficit hawk. Now, he is throwing his weight behind tax cuts just when the country has a chance of becoming fiscally responsible for the first time in more than two decades.
On the key issue of regulation reform, the Senate Majority Leader has ganged up with other hardliners in throwing his support behind a bill that could allow restrictions on regulations to be applied retroactively to long-standing health, safety, and environmental rules. An alternative bill by William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.) is far more sensible, dealing with cost and efficiency without hamstringing regulators.
Presidential politics threatens to wreck what could have been a year of historic legislative accomplishment. In its lurch to the right, the Senate leadership appears ready to endorse tax cuts and legal and regulatory reform proposals that are certain to lead to legislative gridlock and Presidential vetoes. Nothing will be solved, and the usual blame game will be the end result. Instead of listening to their campaign strategists, Senate leaders should pay heed to the wise voice of Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), who is trying to persuade increasingly reluctant fellow Republicans to swallow the tough cuts needed to balance the budget by 2002.
The time is right for a consensus-building Senate Majority leader to save the day on legal reform, regulatory relief, and deficit reduction. The middle path might not completely satisfy fringe groups. However, Dole, and other contenders, may find that doing what's right for the country is good politics, too.