As the 108th Congress convenes, we urge Members to remember: Odd-numbered years are the ones when things are supposed to get done in Washington, leaving even-numbered years for politicking. We’d like to think this rule would prevail in 2003 — especially since voters last year decided to give Republicans full control of the government — but the outlook is not good.
One major problem is the need to correct — and quickly — the major error of the 107th Congress, its failure to fund the civilian side of the federal government for fiscal 2003. House Republicans and the Bush administration are insisting on exercising fiscal discipline over domestic spending and Senate Republicans want to go along, trimming about $10 billion from spending bills passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee in the 107th, when Democrats were in charge.
The plan is for the House to push through two continuing resolutions — one to actually keep the government going at last year’s levels, the other to serve as a vehicle for Senate amendment. The 108th Congress could well pitch into an immediate crisis over funding of such items as drought assistance to farmers, education funding levels and homeland security expenditures for the FBI and local police and fire departments. Because Congress never passed a budget, it will take 60 votes to pass any funding measure in the Senate, and Republicans have only 51 votes. The outcome — an irresponsible one, we believe — could be a continuing resolution at 2002 levels lasting all year. That would constitute a massive punting of Congress’ need to set priorities.
Beyond the immediate funding dilemma is the fact that the 2004 presidential campaign is already under way and several Democratic Senators — including their leader, Sen. Thomas Daschle (S.D.) — are running to unseat President Bush. There’s all-too-great a danger that Democrats will reject any opportunity to cooperate with Bush and that they will compete with one another in opposing his policies, making agreement impossible on a range of issues.
Compounding that is the Republican temptation to view their narrow 2002 victory as a mandate for major policy initiatives — such as complete overhaul of the Medicare system, as opposed to simply providing a prescription drug benefit for seniors — which could energize Democratic opposition and produce new gridlock.
The 107th Congress managed to come to terms — usually with difficulty or under duress — on tax cuts, education reform, campaign finance and election reform, anti-corruption measures and homeland security. But it failed on energy, prescription drugs, patients rights, welfare and pension reform. Even as it fights on funding issues, we’d hope Congress could come to early agreement on some issues that just missed getting resolved last year. Bush could help the process by negotiating in good faith with Democrats and not trying to trounce them.