Washington, 13 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The two political parties that dominate the U.S. Congress -- the Democrats and the Republicans -- are blaming each other for what each side claims is an abnormally slow legislative pace and a failure to enact important legislation.
Democrats claim the Republicans are aimless and have no plans. The leader of the Democrats in the Senate, Tom Daschle of South Dakota says: "I don't know that there is a Republican agenda today, and I think because they don't know what to do, they're not doing anything."
Republicans charge that the Democrats are paralyzed because the leader of their party, President Bill Clinton, is distracted by the investigation into the allegations that he engaged in improper behavior at the White House, charges that Clinton has denied. Says Republican Senate leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, "on a whole number of areas, I think, it's beginning to have an effect."
It's not unusual for the parties to criticize each other over the speed with which legislative business is conducted; but this year the attacks have started about six months ahead of schedule.
Congress is adjourning early because 1998 is a general election year. Members of the House serve two year terms and all 435 seats are up for re-election this year. Senators serve six year terms and elections are staggered, so that this year, 33 of the 100 seats will be contested. Members running for re-election want to return to their home states and districts to campaign for votes.
The Republicans, who hold the majority in both the 100-member Senate and 435-member House of Representatives, and the Democrats are feeling some pressure to speed things up this year because this session of the Congress will be one of the shortest on record.
Normally, Congress is in session from January to about the middle of November. That period includes a summer recess and breaks for national holidays. This year, however, both chambers of the legislature plan to adjourn on October 9. So, with the summer recess and holiday breaks included, there are only 66 working days remaining for the Congress.
Daschle says the election campaign only partly explains what he calls the Republican lethargy. Said Daschle to reporters earlier this week: "I don't think they have any burning definitional design on the legislative agenda. There's nothing there that really is compelling for them to move forward. And I think, rather than give us the chance to pass our agenda, which we've tried to make as very clear and specific as we can, they'd rather do nothing."
Lott, however, is laying most of the blame on President Clinton. In the U.S. system, the president may not introduce legislation, but the president is supposed to provide direction to the Congress in the form of legislative goals that his fellow party members in the legislature seek approval for.
At his weekly press conference, Lott called on Democratic leaders in Congress to "encourage the president to cooperate and try to find a way to get the whole story out and you know, get this behind us."
The "story" Lott refers to is the allegation that Clinton had an adulterous affair with a former White House staff member and then, allegedly, told the woman to lie about their relationship should investigators ever ask. Encouraging someone to lie while under a formal legal obligation to tell the truth is a crime.
Clinton has denied the charges, but they are being investigated by what is called an independent prosecutor. Last week, Lott created some controversy when he called on that prosecutor, a former judge named Kenneth Starr, to wrap up his investigations and present whatever evidence he and his staff have collected.
Lott had to call another press conference to explain what he meant was that, "maybe a little nudge from the leadership, both to the independent counsel and to the president, could be constructive." Said Lott: "I think I am reflecting what I am feeling and sensing from the American people. They do want to know what the whole story is, and they want it dealt with, and they want us to move on to other issues."
Daschle, however, contends that there is no connection between what's happening at the White House and what he says is not happening in Congress. Said Daschle: "I don't know the last time anybody consulted the White House on what the agenda ought to be here in the Senate or in the House."
He said that if the Republicans "wanted to get things done, they could do them." There's nothing, he says, in their way. Daschle said: "I think it's just a convenient excuse."
Daschle was more blunt in his critique of the Republican legislators. In the House of Representatives, he said, "the only thing I've seen them do is come in to pick up their mail, and I don't know that there is any sense of urgency." And about his Senate colleagues he said, "all we've done so far this year in the Senate, frankly, is ... name an airport."
He was referring to a Senate vote that changed the name of Washington, D.C.'s airport from "National Airport" to "Ronald Reagan National Airport," to honor the former president.