The Democrats' Agenda Benders

A pack of House conservatives is worsening the legislative gridlock

The June 11 defeat of the constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget was one of those awful moments that have become all too common in Washington. Not that the amendment itself was much of a loss. But the spectacle again revealed a Congress and a President impotent in the face of a critical national challenge--more evidence that policy gridlock will plague the capital until at least after the November elections.

The vote was a major embarrassment for President Bush, who belatedly threw his prestige behind the amendment only to see it fail. And while victorious, the Democrats' leadership in the House also was humiliated by the whole affair. They could muster barely a third of the House on the issue.

`HUGE LOSS.' That vote was a stinging message from a growing group of Democratic conservatives led by Representative Charles W. Stenholm (D-Tex.), who sponsored the balanced-budget amendment. Stenholm, who can count on 65 solid votes, has made his mark already this year on several crucial issues. His group sank a Democratic "tax-fairness" bill that would have raised taxes on the wealthy to pay for new tax breaks for business and the middle class. They also stymied a leadership effort to shift billions of dollars in defense spending to domestic programs. And they watered down an urban aid package that Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) pushed in the wake of the Los Angeles riots. The next test could come in July, when Democratic leaders try to push an aggressive health care reform package.

For its part, the White House had been certain it couldn't lose. If the amendment passed, the President would claim full credit. If it went down, he would blast Congress for fiscal irresponsibility. But the strategy failed on both counts. As the House was voting, Bush was being teargassed off a Panama City podium. So much for rallying the legislative troops. And the White House has failed to follow up with an aggressive counterattack against the amendment's Democratic opponents.

NECESSARY WEEVILS. Bush's highly partisan blasts in advance of the vote may even have hurt the measure's chances. The amendment needed broad Democratic support to pass. But at the last moment, some Democrats switched because they felt they were being manipulated by the GOP. Others dropped out after Bush refused to promise to push for cuts in medicare and other entitlements. "This was a huge loss for Bush," says one GOP strategist. "At a time when the Democrats were flat on the run, he couldn't take advantage."

That may please Ross Perot, but it's hardly good news for Democratic bosses. They may have turned back the amendment, but they were abandoned by 116 Democrats who supported it. The Stenholm coalition is of small use to Bush. Because he hasn't much of an agenda of his own, he can't emulate Reagan, who worked with Stenholm and other Democratic "boll weevils" to build a working majority for his programs in 1981-82.

The result is that Washington will keep on sinking into the ooze of inaction. One example: A group of House Democrats, led by Budget Committee Chairman Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.), will try in a few weeks to pass a new budget-enforcement plan that could provide a road map out of the fiscal swamp. But without strong party leadership, the measure is likely to die.

The outlook for the rest of the year, then, is more of the same. Only worse. Says former Congressional Budget Office Director Rudolph G. Penner: "It's back to business as usual."

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