Editorial: No Confidence

Posted July 29, 2008 at 4:35pm

It ought to be a matter of grave concern to Members of Congress of both parties — and a subject of reflection over the August break — that the Gallup Poll not only shows that Congress’ approval rating is at 14 percent, a record low, but that only 16 percent of Americans have confidence in Congress, the lowest for any institution in America.

It’s not hard to figure out why. All the public sees is Democrats and Republicans fighting, scheming for advantage in the next election, and failing — except under extreme duress or to win favor with some interest group — to address America’s grave problems.

Every other year, as a new Congress arrives in town, leaders of both parties and the president, too, solemnly affirm that they have heard the voters’ message — they want bipartisan cooperation, reaching across the aisle, etc., etc. — only to see the pledges evaporate at the first sign of a critical issue.

In 2007, one of the first things Senate Democrats did after Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) made his ceremonial peace gesture was to establish a “war room.”

It’s a bipartisan pattern, of course. When Republicans were in control of the House, they froze Democrats out of the deliberative process. Democrats shrieked and promised things would be different if they won power.

Now, their arbitrary approach rivals that of former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). And, where Senate Republicans once constantly accused the Democratic minority of “obstructionism” — with some legitimacy — Democrats are doing the same, also with legitimacy.

Leaders can say, “It’s all a bum rap. We’ve accomplished more than we’re given credit for.” And it’s true that this year Congress passed a bipartisan stimulus package, housing legislation, a GI bill (not paid for), and may yet pass a higher education authorization and mental health parity.

But treatment of energy legislation has been an embarrassment. As the price of fuel has soared, all beleaguered consumers have seen their legislators do is shout at each other and resort to parliamentary games to block politically unwelcome votes.

Perhaps, after weeks of wrangling, Senate Democrats at last will offer Republicans a number of oil-drilling amendments they will accept — while anticipating they can prevent these GOP-sponsored amendments from getting the 60 votes needed to pass.

On the House side, Democrats have systematically put energy bills on the suspension calendar to block Republicans from offering any alternatives at all. They have also shut down the appropriations process for the year to avoid possibly losing votes on energy bills. Perhaps the House will pass two of the 12 appropriations bills needed to fund the government this year, but none will pass Congress.

Democrats are calculating that they will win victories in November, have a Democrat in the White House — and then tackle all the nation’s unfinished business their way. It may happen.

But, then, there were great hopes that Democrats would change Congress when they took over in 2006. Unfortunately, look at how the public views the institution now.