`Cheap Shots And Cheap Talk': Congress Wraps Up A Year To Forget

Congress usually closes its year in a burst of activity, ending months of quarrelsome dawdling with a rush to wrap up unfinished business. But as lawmakers head for a pre-Thanksgiving adjournment, they are looking toward an unsatisfying end to an ugly and unproductive session.

Having locked themselves into a fiscal straitjacket with the 1990 budget agreement, Democratic leaders and President Bush had talked of putting aside partisan differences to take on big tasks: modernize creaky laws regulating financial services, revamp energy policy and transportation programs, and grapple with reform of health care and education. But the glow faded quickly as the parties went for the quick partisan thrust. Carleton College political scientist Steven E. Schier says Congress fell all over itself with "cheap shots and cheap talk. On most issues, the members battled themselves to a draw."

BACKSLAPPING. Democrats are congratulating themselves for recent victories over the Administration. A yearlong effort by Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady to give banks broad new powers went down in flames in the House on Nov. 4. Conservation-minded Senate Democrats blocked consideration of an energy bill modeled on the President's strategy. After two years of vicious combat, Democrats won acceptance of civil rights legislation that closely resembles the measure Bush had denounced as a "quota bill." They forced the White House to seek compromise over added benefits for the long-term unemployed. And Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.), perhaps the Democrats' most effective strategist, kept Bush's capital-gains tax cut bottled up.

For his part, the President extended his string of successful vetoes to 23. He began the year with a major victory, when Congress narrowly voted to authorize the use of force in the Persian Gulf. And the Bush Administration overcame obstacles to get two embattled nominees confirmed: Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court and Robert M. Gates as director of central intelligence.

But these partisan triumphs for either side ring hollow. As members head home until January, they shouldn't expect kudos for scoring points on bank reform. More likely, voters will wonder what happened to talk of a middle-class tax cut, promises to make health care more affordable, or solemn oaths to clean up the way campaigns are financed. Debate over crime and drugs -- two of the issues that matter most to voters -- is endless, but the problems only get worse. "There's a mismatch between the short-term focus of Congress and the long-term problems facing the country," laments Representative Willis D. Gradison (R-Ohio).

EMPTY PROMISES. Even so mundane an issue as renewal of the highway and mass-transit programs has gotten bogged down in disputes between the House and Senate and probably won't be completed until next year. And the big promise of 1991 -- that the budget agreement would cut the deficit -- also turned out to be empty. Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution says voters "are very receptive to criticism of Congress as an institution when they see deficits growing and their own wages falling." Lawmakers will wind up the session by taking care of some essential business -- infusing capital into the Bank Insurance Fund and the thrift cleanup and passing a handful of spending bills. And the year wouldn't be complete without one more wrenching debate over abortion, this time on a bill allowing family-planning clinics to counsel patients on ending pregnancies. What voters are likely to remember, though, is the Senate's midnight pay raise and the House's bounced checks. Members can only be grateful that elections aren't until 1992.

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