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The Nation

A Congress of Milestones Exits

In spite of partisanship, legislators head into the election having passed far-reaching bills on issues from campaign finance to agriculture.

October 20, 2002|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- A weary Congress is trudging to the exits knee-deep in unfinished business, ranging from homeland security to health legislation, with partisan tensions almost as taut as when the session began after the disputed 2000 presidential election.

But what may be more remarkable -- and easily obscured by the mountain of stalled bills -- is how much far-reaching legislation this divided Congress managed to produce, almost in spite of itself.

The authorization of a possible war in Iraq is just the most recent example. Significant changes were made in campaign finance laws, corporate accounting standards, trade policy and farm subsidies. In each of those areas, lawmakers passed what amounted to legislative milestones, capping some debates that had lasted years, even decades.

Driving Congress to act in many of those cases was an unpredictable series of events that buffeted and bruised the nation. From the war in Afghanistan to a threat of war with Iraq; from an epidemic of corporate scandals to a spectacular stock market plunge; from recession to drought and wildfires in the West, Congress' agenda has been set by forces far beyond its control.

But underlying partisan differences became harder and harder to bridge as lawmakers drew closer to an election day that could be a watershed for one party or the other.

The result has been a Congress that has shown flexibility in responding to extraordinary circumstances but little creativity in dealing with more enduring long-term quandaries.

"Congress has been reactive, rather than addressing some long-standing problems, like Social Security and Medicare," said Burdett Loomis, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas.

This mixed record of accomplishment and impasse is the report card that lawmakers will be taking home to voters as the Nov. 5 elections approach.

But the last chapter of this Congress will not be written until after the elections, when lawmakers return for a lame-duck session. They will have to finish writing the must-pass appropriation bills needed to fund government agencies and programs for the 2003 fiscal year.

Stymied on these basic spending bills and many other issues, House leaders last week sent their members home for the rest of the campaign season. The Senate remains nominally in session, and House leaders say they would reconvene before the elections if there is a breakthrough on a major issue. But many lawmakers believe they have effectively begun their preelection recess, not to return until the week of Nov. 11.

As the focus grows on the elections, each party is blaming the other for impasses on such issues as helping the economy, creating a department of homeland security and providing prescription drug coverage through Medicare.

"I believe that in many respects this was a very disappointing Congress, disappointing in the sense that so much more could have been accomplished," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said Friday. He complained about "Republican obstructionism" and laid a good deal of the blame on President Bush. "The president came to Washington promising to change the tone, and he did: It's worse."

Republicans, not surprisingly, depict a starkly different dynamic. In a typical comment, Rep. George P. Radanovich (R-Mariposa) said: "Daschle and the Democrats would have had to produce something for us to obstruct, which of course they did not."

A review of the year's odd melange of results -- some major bills whizzing through while others languish -- provides a window into how this Congress' output was shaped by the often-dizzying shifts in political, economic and international developments.

Take, for example, concern about corporate accounting and business scandals. The issue burst onto the political scene early this year, after the collapse of the Enron Corp., whose bankruptcy cost investors -- including company employees -- billions of dollars in pension funds and other savings.

Because Enron officials were well-connected political donors to both parties, the company's collapse helped propel legislation to ban the national political parties from receiving the unlimited contributions from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals known as "soft money." Many skeptics thought reformers would forever lose this battle, but in March the soft-money ban became the first major campaign finance law enacted in a generation.

Enron and the subsequent spate of corporate scandals also catapulted to the fore an array of business-related issues that previously had received little attention. The bill that toughened oversight of the accounting industry and increased criminal penalties for corporate fraud cleared Congress in July with head-spinning velocity. It was widely hailed as the most far-reaching corporate reform bill since the Great Depression.

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