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Even routine legislation, like the highway bill, is hung up because of partisan rancor

ASK THIS | August 20, 2004

How bad is the current political gridlock -- and is there any way out?

By Elaine S. Povich

  1. To incumbents: What effect, if any, does this animosity have on getting routine spending bills through committees? Can you name a project of your own that got enacted? How did you accomplish that?
  1. To incumbents: People say important national issues are being left unaddressed or under-addressed, and that this session of Congress accomplished almost nothing of value. Can you name three or four pieces of legislation that got enacted and that you feel are very important? And what do you say to the assertion that important issues have been left unaddressed?
  1. To all Congressional candidates: Members of the House and Senate are split by party on something as apolitical as which cities constitute a terrorism high threat area. Do you see any way to overcome such hostility? Do you expect it to continue? Do you have any suggestions for ways to reach across the aisle?

In the Appropriations committees, bipartisanship used to be the norm. Now Democrats get far fewer of their pet projects approved. When Democrats controlled Congress, it seems to me, there was much more cooperation between the parties when it came to pork. In part that was because the Democrats had large majorities in both houses, allowing them to get their programs through and still be somewhat generous to Republicans. Today's Republicans, with slim majorities, seem to have decided that it's better to pass their programs with Republicans alone, rather than try to attract Democrats.

Thus, when it comes to writing legislation, Democrats are left out. An example is the recent Medicare prescription drug bill. In the House-Senate negotiations, it was Republicans-only in the meeting room. Democrats, led by Rep. Charles Rangel, rounded up reporters and charged into the room, cameras rolling and reporters scribbling. But that lasted just a few minutes, as they were unceremoniously kicked out a short time later. Meanwhile, lobbyists were allowed in to help write the new law.

Even high-interest legislation like the Highway Bill is hung up in the partisan process. The House and Senate have not been able to agree on funding, let alone which projects to fund, and the outlook for action before the November elections is grim.

The rare exception is when members of different parties band together as a state delegation for a common interest, such as a big project or an environmental bill that will benefit their state. But even then, some members are pressured by party leaders to toe the line — or are enticed to do so by a tax break for a major employer or a visit from the President of the United States during a political campaign.

In the 70s, and even into the 80s, House speaker Thomas "Tip" O’Neill and minority leader Robert Michel used to play golf together. Republicans and Democrats from Illinois used to drive home together for weekends. Not any more. The thought of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi playing anything together boggles the mind.

Some say the loss of conviviality is a good thing because there’s less logrolling and reciprocal back-scratching. But a certain amount of that is what makes the Congress run. Or used to.

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