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The Trashing of a Tradition

October 02, 1988

One of the great conventional wisdoms in all of politics is that Congress gets very little done during election years. After all, they say, senators and representatives are so concerned with getting themselves reelected that they have little time to spare for serious business. The situation is even worse in a presidential election year because so many members of Congress also are running for President, and the party that holds the White House is not inclined to do its opposition any favors by approving legislation that may win points with the voters.

So they say. But this Congress, with the willing collusion of the Reagan-Bush Administration, has tossed that conventional wisdom into the trash can. The 100th Congress has been passing major legislation at a furious pace, much of it because of the election and not in spite of it. Some of the legislation has succeeded only over the President's veto, but many major bills have gone through with Ronald Reagan's acceptance, in part to save Vice President George Bush the embarrassment of being part of an Administration that appears to be standing in the way of progress.

In some cases the two political parties have been racing each other in order to reap credit for the embracing of popular issues. In most instances, however, the unity of the Democrats since the party recaptured control of the Senate has helped propel bills through Congress. Congressional leaders say that the flood of legislation has received impetus from the pent-up demand of the previous six years, when the Republicans controlled the Senate and often stymied Democratic programs at Reagan's urging.

Perhaps the most politically charged issue this year has been trade. The President vetoed the original trade bill because of the Democrats' provision providing workers with 60 days' notice of plant closings. Congress separated the issue and sent the President a new trade bill without the plant-closing provision, and he signed it. Then Congress passed a separate plant-closing bill and Reagan grudgingly let it become law without his signature.

During the 1987-88 session the President also vetoed a highway-construction and mass-transit bill, a new clean-water act and the civil-rights-restoration act. All were passed into law, however, on the strength of both Democratic and Republican votes behind veto overrides.

Other major programs of the 100th Congress include help for the homeless, drought aid to farmers, an increase in the food-stamp program, catastrophic health care and a new fair-housing act. After years of trying, Congress now is on the verge of approving welfare reform. A new minimum wage came close to passage, but succumbed to a Republican filibuster in the Senate. There has been considerable achievement in environmental legislation, including a new endangered-species act and pesticide-control law and major progress on a clean-air act, awaiting renewal ever since 1981. The Administration even agreed to delay a California offshore-oil-lease sale.

And, going into the weekend, Congress was racing to complete action before the start of the new fiscal year on all 13 departmental appropriation bills--most of them within the budget-deficit guidelines negotiated last year by Reagan and congressional leaders.

So much for the conventional wisdom. Regardless of motive, Congress has done Olympian duty this term.

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