Commentary: A Deafening Gobble Of Congressional Turkeys

Partisanship produces a bounty of vote-buying bills

Laws are like sausages: It is better not to see them being made. Or so Otto von Bismarck is thought to have said. But as the 108th Congress winds down its dreary 2003 session, it's revising the Iron Chancellor's dictum. This time, in one of the ugliest years in Capitol Hill memory, the sausage isn't even edible. Confronted with a string of serious problems, from soaring prescription drug bills to a fragile national energy grid, Congress -- aided and abetted by an election-minded White House -- has mostly dished up bills stuffed with special-interest pork. "The product is just embarrassingly bad," says congressional scholar Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

Congress often has off years -- but 2003 marks a low point for the legislative branch. Blame much of the morass on the 50/50 nation, a cleavage that has intensified and evolved from gridlock to something worse. Rather than just stopping policy innovation -- as Congress did in the past -- today's bitter partisans are fusing the bad ideas of both sides. The mélange is held together by costly giveaways designed to buy votes, resulting in budget-busting bills that lack any unifying logic.

CASE IN POINT: The $31 billion-plus energy bill, which stalled in the Senate but is still on the docket for next year. The August blackout that left 50 million in the dark across the Midwest and Northeast was expected to send a jolt through long-stalled energy legislation. Instead, regional disputes sank plans to upgrade the grid, and there's little left but handouts, including a mandate to boost ethanol use that will send billions to corn farmers. Or there's the $400 billion Medicare drug-benefit bill that passed Nov. 25, a clumsy mix of liberal social benefits and conservative reform that promises to make a botch of both.

Why is this Congress producing so many turkeys? In a 50/50 nation, each party figures its mandate is as strong as the other's -- and politicians on both sides see little reason to compromise. That tendency is reinforced by the lack of electoral risk: Skillful gerrymandering has produced safe districts for both parties. For the 2004 election, the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report says only 38 of the 435 House seats are in play for a party switch. "Not only is Congress evenly divided, but the parties are either uniformly liberal or conservative," says Michael Franc, vice-president of the right-of-center Heritage Foundation.

WITH A RAZOR-THIN GOP majority, winning the few seats that are at risk can determine control of Congress -- and committee chairmanships, staff jobs, and countless perks. So House Republicans in particular have decided that bolstering the party base is vital: Legislation starts on the right, and edges only far enough to the center to get 218 votes. On big bills like Medicare and energy, Republican leaders cobbled together bills in secret sessions, then presented the GOP rank-and-file and Democrats with a take-it-or-leave-it package.

When muddled policies attract insufficient votes, giveaways usually win the day. The Medicare bill buys support with $86 billion to encourage businesses to keep providing drug benefits to retirees, $14 billion in subsidies for managed-care plans, and $9 billion to reverse a planned cut in physician and hospital reimbursements. President Bush and his GOP allies, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), pay only lip service to budgetary discipline -- and give lobbyists and lawmakers a green light to demand higher prices for their support. "Republicans are like machine politicians -- spending wildly to buy off everybody," fumes Simon B. Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, a fund-raising group.

Sometimes, even the universal elixir isn't enough. The energy bill has been postponed to 2004 -- not because senators objected to its big breaks for nuclear plants ($7.4 billion) or hydrogen power ($2.1 billion), but because of a regional dispute over legal protection for chemical companies that make a gasoline additive. And $78 billion in tax sweeteners couldn't overcome a partisan deadlock over how to fix U.S. taxation of international corporations. Most likely, Congress will take this fight right to the brink -- when the European Union imposes tariffs on $4 billion in U.S. goods next spring -- before either party will budge.

Ideologically riven lawmakers can only pull together when confronting a common enemy -- like, say, telemarketers. When a district court struck down the Federal Trade Commission's popular Do-Not-Call registry, the House devised a legislative patch within 48 hours. But even the revised measure is riddled with loopholes for charities, businesses, and political fund-raisers. An anti-spam bill expected to clear Congress by early December is even worse: It gives marketers a right to spam -- forcing consumers to opt out of receiving e-mail, one sender at a time -- while blocking states, businesses, and individuals from tracking down and suing renegade spammers who hide behind fake addresses.

Both parties share the same goal: Boost their own records -- or tar the other guys' -- in the next election. But the 108th Congress hasn't provided much satisfaction for either side. Its legislative highlights are fiercely expensive, adding hundreds of billions to burgeoning deficits. Privately, many of these bills' supporters concede that they won't produce the vaunted outcome promised to voters. If this is the best Congress can do in a split nation, even gridlock would be an improvement. Doing nothing is better -- and a lot cheaper -- than the bad ideas they're enshrining in law now.

By Mike McNamee

With Lorraine Woellert, John Carey, and Howard Gleckman in Washington

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