Big Mess Ahead

Posted July 6, 2004 at 4:40pm

Here we go again. The Senate can’t pass a budget resolution. Only one of the 13 appropriations bills has cleared both the House and Senate. July is a short legislative month, and everyone will be gone in August. You know what this means: a lame-duck session in November and a messy, pork-riddled omnibus spending bill.

And it’s not just on the money front that the second session of the 108th Congress is poised to accomplish nothing. The House and Senate can’t agree on an energy bill despite high gasoline prices, last year’s Northeast blackout, repeated urging from the White House and constant reminders of America’s over-dependence on risky Mideast oil. Bankruptcy-reform legislation is stymied. So is welfare-reform reauthorization. Maybe there will be a Transportation reauthorization bill, maybe not. Even the Defense reauthorization bill faces a tough conference.

Sure, the House and Senate have done a few must-do things. The United States is in a war, so both chambers have passed a Defense appropriations bill. And both have approved legislation repealing a $5 billion-a-year export subsidy after the World Trade Organization ruled against it and authorized imposition of punitive tariffs against U.S. products. Despite complaints from both parties about expanding budget deficits, however, the House’s repeal measure contained $15 billion in new corporate tax breaks; the Senate added $17 billion.

As any House Member will tell you, the perennial locus of delay in Congress is “The Other Body.” And so it is this year. The House has passed four appropriations bills, and three more have cleared committee. In the Senate, it’s one and one. July should be appropriations month in the Senate, but instead Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has scheduled class-action tort reform — which had the 60 votes necessary for passage last November — and an anti-gay-marriage constitutional amendment designed mainly to embarrass Democrats before their national convention.

Republicans blame Democrats for Senate “obstructionism,” but the failure to pass a budget resolution — which would have made it easier to pass appropriations bills — is mainly an intra-GOP affair. Moderates want to impose a pay-as-you-go system to restrain spending. Conservatives, ironically enough, don’t. The situation has the conservative Senate leadership so exercised that it’s trying to acquire the means to threaten wayward moderates with the loss of committee chairmanships.

It’s true that if Senate Republicans drop the seniority system and give leaders the power to make committee assignments and choose chairmen, they simply will be following the authoritarian pattern of Senate Democrats and of both parties in the House. Still, the effect would be to smother centrism — what there is left of it — and enhance partisanship and polarization. That’s a distinct Congressional pattern: When things are going badly, make them worse.