The Do-Nothing Congress Wasn't

By Hickey, Jennifer G. | Insight on the News, November 16, 1998 | Go to article overview
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The Do-Nothing Congress Wasn't


Hickey, Jennifer G., Insight on the News


House and Senate Democrats accuse Republicans of investigating, not legislating. But the GOP now is fighting back and defending the record of the 105th Congress.

America has seen the arrival and passage of Abba, Menudo and Vanilla Ice. It has experienced the rise and fall of break-dancing, the Macarena and vogueing. But for 50 years there has been one political song and dance that has challenged the tenacious staying power of the common cold. It is the Trumanian campaign taunt of a "do-nothing Congress."

Citing such Democratic wish-list themes as billions for federalizing school construction and increasing the minimum wage, which the Democrats hoped to address in January, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri recently said, "These are really the issues that people care about and that we're running on against the do-nothing Congress."

The World Wide Web site of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee boomed: "Ever since they took control of Congress in 1995, instead of enacting legislation aimed at the everyday problems of working families, Republicans have been focusing their time and resources on conducting endless, highly partisan investigations targeted at their political enemies. That is, instead of legislating, Republicans have focused on investigating."

Even as President Clinton stood on the White House lawn to announce the agreement between the Clinton administration and the Republican Congress on the $520 billion Omnibus Appropriations bill, he could not resist repeating the Democratic mantra. "Eight days of progress cannot totally erase eight months of partisanship. We all know that in those eight months of partisanship too many dreams of too many families were deferred," Clinton lamented. Warming up, he blasted the Congress for "failing" to pass campaign-finance reform, his patients' bill of rights and an increase in the minimum wage, among other projects on the White House agenda.

As many listeners became dizzy from the Democratic spin, other readers were soaking up the Republican counterarguments. House Speaker Newt Gingrich took to the pages of the New York Post to respond to an article by conservative columnist Robert Novak that had run the previous day. Gingrich wrote, "This Congress will be remembered for a lengthy list of historic conservative accomplishments that will improve the lives of millions of Americans." He pointed to welfare reform, the balanced budget, tax cuts and the IRS Reform and Restructuring Act.

But, has the 105th been a do-nothing Congress? "`Do-nothing'? They did quite a lot, so it would be tough to call them a `do-nothing Congress,'" says Sarah Binder, an analyst at the Democrat-leaning Brookings Institution in Washington.

Many in Washington choose to concentrate on numerical comparisons. From Jan. 3 until Nov. 13, 1997, the House spent 132 days in session compared to the Senate's 153 days, according to the Congressional Record. While this Congress passed 929 of the more than 4,600 measures introduced as of Nov. 13, it has passed only 33 bills compared with 64 in the first six months of 1996 and 59 during the same period in 1994. However, the number of roll-call votes for both the House and the Senate surpassed comparable numbers in 1995 and 1996.

On the other end of the equation (and of Pennsylvania Avenue) sits the president. In noting that Clinton had, as of Oct. 6, spent 152 of the year's 278 days raising funds, vacationing or abroad, Republican National Committee, or RNC, Chairman Jim Nicholson launched a campaign-mode missile of his own. "You criticize Congress for not doing its own work when you're the one who's been AWOL. You relentlessly criticized President Bush for his overseas travel, then proceed to break his travel record," admonished Nicholson.

As with most statistical analyses, there is plenty of room on both sides for interpretation, and historic changes are not always factored.

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