Oil prices continue to soar, the cost of health insurance and the number of Americans without it keep rising, and the nation's intelligence system is still a mess. This year, the federal deficit will blast to an unfathomable $422 billion, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan is warning baby boomers not to expect the Social Security and Medicare benefits their parents receive, wages have stalled and hiring is slow. Sounds like Congress has a lot of work to do. Too bad it's an election year.
Congress returned Tuesday for a last push before Nov. 2. Leaders know that agreement on a package of energy conservation measures (yawn) will hardly get their voters to the polls. Nor will consensus on deficit reduction (double yawn).
Republicans figure that voters will pull the lever for their guys if they're mad at the other guys. So congressional leaders will throw out the usual slabs of raw meat -- such as proposed constitutional amendments to ban flag desecration and same-sex marriage. The tiresome endgame is to paint Democrats into a corner where a "no" vote may cost them their seats and Sen. John F. Kerry the presidency.
Even though senators defeated the same-sex marriage ban in July, they may vote once more to get the attention of constituents who might have been off fishing. House leaders have staged five hearings since March on the parade of horribles they see trailing gay marriage. Now, with the cameras rolling, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) will put the proposed ban before his majority Republican colleagues in coming weeks for near-certain passage.
The flag desecration ban returns as well. A favorite in the House, where it has passed umpteen times, the proposed amendment has always fallen short in the Senate. That's probably because no matter how it's written, the ban would violate the 1st Amendment. Nevertheless, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) won't be able to resist the chance to paint Democratic colleagues -- like Sen. Tom Daschle, in a tight race to keep his seat in conservative South Dakota -- as unpatriotic if they vote no.
Don't forget the Pledge of Allegiance. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ducked the question of whether the words "under God" passed constitutional muster, kicking the matter back to the lower courts on a technicality. But House leaders say they'll call a vote soon on a bill to bar lower courts from even hearing challenges to the pledge's wording. A matter of vital national interest, to be sure.
Sure, leaders say they'll push hard in coming weeks to implement the 9/11 commission's recommendations for tightening domestic security and to pass an omnibus spending bill. But that's boring backroom policymaking. Glory and votes follow those who step toward the camera lights, pound the lectern and insist that the nation's morals hang in the balance.