For this Congress, less will be more

Posted: Monday, November 13, 2000

The following editorial appeared in today's Los Angeles Times:

Tuesday's election kept the Republicans in control of Congress and its working committees for the next two years, but only barely. A handful of votes divides the two parties in the House, and the Senate appears to be headed for an unprecedented 50-50 split. With these numbers, either Democrats or Republicans can bring the legislative process to a standstill. The only alternative to chronic legislative gridlock is for the next Congress to drop the most divisive issues - large tax cuts on the GOP side and profligate spending by the Democrats on the other - and work on issues where there is bipartisan support.

The outgoing Congress will be known for whipping up the Clinton's impeachment crisis at the beginning and then spending two years in bitter partisan brinkmanship. Not surprisingly, the contempt the Republican legislators felt for President Clinton poisoned the legislative atmosphere and led to a standoff on key legislation, including five appropriation measures for the current fiscal year. In the final weeks of deliberations on the annual budget, usually a period of lively give-and-take between the two parties, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., didn't even talk to one another.

Clearly, no matter what the outcome of the presidential election, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats will have the popular mandate to implement the grandiose programs their presidential candidates proposed in their campaigns. If Texas Gov. George W. Bush wins, he will have Congress on his side but no popular mandate. A razor-thin victory for Vice President Al Gore would not give him the muscle to assert himself in a Republican Congress.

That may not be all bad. Bush's $1.3 billion tax cut, the centerpiece of his program, would consume most, if not all, the anticipated revenue surpluses, leaving no room for ideas like paying down the debt. Gore's expensive spending plans likewise would eat up most of the surplus.

In poll after poll, several years running now, Americans have said that they are fed up with partisan bickering. They expect the president to set national priorities and for legislators to act on them. Top ones include campaign finance law reform, educational reform and shoring up Social Security and Medicare programs. This would require the next president to work not only with his own party but also reach out to the opposition. Legislators will have to work much harder to build consensus.

It would be unrealistic, after the most divisive election in modern history, to expect the two parties to agree on all the issues, nor should they. But some issues, such as campaign finance reform, have a measure of bipartisan support and need urgent attention.

And certainly the dysfunctional 106th Congress, meeting this week in a lame-duck session, should give up on its ill-advised $250 billion tax cut package and simply approve the remaining appropriation bills and adjourn.

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