The last session of Congress distinguished itself more by partisan division than by any sense of genuine accomplishment.
The failure to reach agreement on eleven of the thirteen appropriations bills before adjourning for the election symbolized congressional ineffectiveness. Even as sober a columnist as the Washington Post's David Broder characterized the outgoing Congress as the "little engine that couldn't." The good news is that a new Congress has been elected and will begin addressing the nation's problems in January. The bad news is that the same issues will probably bedevil the new Congress even with unified partisan control.
The Republicans held their majority in the House and took control of the Senate, but the narrowness of their majorities will make bipartisan cooperation essential. If Congress expects to produce legislative accomplishments, the parties will have to work together, which will become even more difficult as the 2004 presidential election approaches. The last few presidents have run for election by distinguishing themselves from Congress, making cooperation difficult. Even with a shared partisan outlook, Congress and the White House have conflicting institutional goals that will cause divisions.
Before the new agenda can be tackled, Congress must address several pieces of unfinished business from the last session. Partisan gridlock delayed creation of the Homeland Security Department, prevented agreement on prescription drug coverage, and, most embarrassing, blocked action on the most basic responsibility of Congressfunding the programs of the federal government. The lame duck session simply deferred appropriations decisions, and the new Congress will have to deal with the specific pieces of legislation left over from last session and develop processes that will prevent such embarrassment in the future.
In the area of higher education, Congress has two critical tasks: to reauthorize the Higher Education Act and to provide adequate funding for student aid, research, and institutional support programs. Federal funding is more important than ever given the economic downturn in the states. …