What a Mess

Posted December 18, 2007 at 4:47pm

We don’t know exactly how the first session of the 110th Congress will end, but all indications are that it won’t be well. At best, it will be with passage of a half-trillion-dollar omnibus funding bill that President Bush will sign — a mighty monster rolling together 11 unpassed appropriations bills and larded with dozens of airdropped earmarks previously approved by neither the House nor Senate.

Now, almost certainly, the first year of Democratic rule of Congress in 13 years will end better than the first year of Republican rule in 1995. Confrontation between then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and then-President Bill Clinton resulted in a shutdown of the federal government over the holidays. Congress got the blame and it’s been a cautionary tale ever since.

Moreover, this Democratic Congress — bitterly hostile though many of its leaders are toward Bush — avoided impeachment, the other temptation that Republicans yielded to and suffered for.

And, if an omnibus passes, the final fiscal product of this session will be procedurally better than last year’s, when the outgoing majority Republicans utterly failed to pass nine of the 11 appropriations bills, leaving it to incoming Democrats to fund the government through the year by continuing resolution.

All that said, the year has been a polarized, partisan mess that has left the public disgusted with both the president and Congress. Promises made after the 2006 elections to “reach across the aisle” have been all but totally broken.

Frustrated by their inability to enact key items in their agenda — end the Iraq War, cut taxes for the middle class and raise them for the wealthy and hike funding for medical research and education — House and Senate Democrats have been grousing at one another. Republicans have been chortling at their ability to obstruct, even though they used to rail when Democrats did the same.

Some House Democrats yearn for a change in Senate rules so that a minority with 41 votes can’t threaten a filibuster and block bill after bill pushed through on a party-line basis in the House. It isn’t going to happen. Delay — politely known as “deliberation” — is what the Senate was designed for by the framers.

The 60-vote requirement to pass legislation in the Senate is now deeply ingrained, but we wish that greater discretion could be observed in employing it. From the 1970s until 1990, the Senate got through a session with an average of only 18 cloture motions. Since the first years of the Clinton administration, the average has been 36. This year, there have been nearly 80.

Election years offer little incentive for politicians to temper their behavior, but we’ll hope nonetheless that Members and leaders will make a New Year’s resolution to remember what they said at the outset of this year — that voters sent them here to solve problems, not thwart each other.