A Week of Activity Can’t Mask the Hard Feelings in Congress

Posted May 13, 2008 at 11:00am

The good news is that Congress is buckling down to a full schedule of meaty, substantive issues, the most robust planned agenda in a long time. The bad news? It will be nothing short of a miracle if we end up the week with anything significant that is on its way to presidential signature — or if we see any signs of hope that we are emerging from the prolonged unhealthiness in our politics and policy process in Washington.

[IMGCAP(1)]The plans for action range from the long-awaited omnibus farm bill to the war funding in the supplemental with its range of add-ons, including a new GI bill and an extension of unemployment benefits. Add to those the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act to force states and localities to engage in collective bargaining with its police and firefighters, the flood insurance bill and the attempt to suspend contributions to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

This week, indeed this whole month, will be a key test in whether the political process in Washington can rise above the dysfunction that has been the norm for this Congress. Last week, the House was dominated by interminable delays and protests by the minority at the majority’s abuse of the regular order by bypassing the Appropriations Committee and process. Leave aside the irony of indignation coming from lawmakers who made a habit of bypassing the regular order on appropriations and elsewhere; the spectacle reflected a House as deeply divided along partisan lines as it was in the previous Congress — and a House with no common denominator of trying to do something to solve the problems we have at home and abroad.

The problem has been exacerbated, of course, by the president. President Bush signaled after the 2006 elections that he believed that he and the newly elected Democratic Congress could do some business together, on immigration, education, energy and the environment, among other issues. But when his immigration plan went down the tubes in the Senate — driven in that direction when only 12 of 49 Republican Senators rallied behind their own president’s signature domestic goal — the aim of significant progress on policy built around a significant working relationship with Democrats went with it.

What followed was a string of vetoes (after six years of none) and even more veto threats that both constipated the legislative process and gave Congressional Republicans traction to block action or at least gum up the works. It also gave Congressional Democrats traction to use the process any way they could to gain leverage over the president in a protracted policy war.

To be sure, not every issue has played out along the same lines, including the ones on the floor this week or others in the wings. The farm bill does not pit Bush and Congressional Republicans against Congress’ Democrats. Its support is thoroughly bipartisan, with large numbers on both sides willing to back a bill that throws money where it isn’t needed with no clear regard for the new realities of biofuels, skyrocketing worldwide demand for grains and food shortages. The president in this case is joined by some liberals and classic conservatives with disdain both for a huge government subsidy program and for having obscenely high income caps for government payments to wealthy farmers at a time of record high farm prices.

The supplemental war funding bill does basically pit Democrats against Republicans — but we also saw Blue Dog Democrats abandon ship over their leaders’ willingness to break the bank by loading the bill with too much spending and no offsets. They have a good point here, of course — but the bigger issue on this one remains the stark, embarrassing and outrageous fiscal dishonesty reflected in funding an ongoing major war through the backdoor of emergency supplemental appropriations. We should be having a major debate on offsetting growing government spending with other spending cuts or commensurate increases in revenue — and including the war and the other ancillary defense spending shoveled into unchecked and untested backdoor bills. Democratic leaders now have decided to play the same game with their own add-ons. But the game was shaped by the administration’s unwillingness to be honest about the costs of the war from the beginning. In any case, the issue will end up in yet another veto-driven confrontation between Congress and the president.

The logjam is clearly related to the continued sharp, even sharpening partisan divide in both chambers of Congress. The House has seen relations between the parties deteriorate from an already low base.

That dynamic appears to be gelling on another front with the emergence of public hearings on the “stolen vote” from August of last year after a prolonged behind-the-scenes investigation by a select committee that spent a bundle on outside counsel to get the facts. I am glad that the law firms of Dickstein Shapiro and King & Spalding got a fat public subsidy to add to their partners’ profits; the big law firms, after all, are hurting just like the rest of us. But the expenditure of time and money is unlikely to lead to a conclusion any different than the one I drew in a Roll Call column soon after the vote, that the outrage reflected some ham-handedness on the part of the Majority Leader but mainly a misunderstanding about the role of the gavel and how votes are tallied.

It appears, though, that instead of a long deliberative process creating a greater understanding of the insensitivities and failings of both the majority and the minority, and a determination on both sides to do better, the result will be another wedge issue driving more distrust and hostility between the parties. If Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), one of the best and fairest Members of the House, could not reduce the fiery rhetoric and level of distrust, I am not sure anyone can. And if we can’t, the clear and urgent needs of the country will be left to fester.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.