Accessibility links

U.S.: Congress Expected To Accomplish Little In Election Year

  • Andrew Tully

Since 11 September, U.S. President George W. Bush has had the support of virtually all members of Congress in his campaign against international terrorism. But this year is an election year for Congress, where both the Senate and the House of Representatives are nearly equally divided between members of the Republican and Democratic parties. Democrats may continue to support Bush, a Republican, on the war, but it appears that neither party has lost its taste for partisan fighting when it comes to domestic issues.

Washington, 15 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Since the 11 September terrorist attacks on America, relations between President George W. Bush and the U.S. Congress have been uncharacteristically cordial. But that bipartisanship will probably end when the Senate and House of Representatives convene next week (23 January).

Politicians from across the political spectrum have been unstinting in their support for Bush's campaign against international terrorism. And there is no reason to believe that that will change.

But this is a congressional election year, when all seats in the House of Representatives and one-third of the 100-seat Senate will be contested. Both houses of Congress are nearly equally split between Bush's Republican Party and the opposition Democratic Party. In the House, with 435 seats, Republicans have only an 11-seat advantage over Democrats. In the Senate, the margin is thinner: There are 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans, and one independent with formal allegiance to neither party, although he votes mostly with the Democrats.

As a result, both parties are working hard to increase their numbers in both houses in hopes of gaining control of the entire Congress.

Political observers interviewed by RFE/RL say this comes at an unfortunate time, because members of Congress will be focusing on the election at a time when they should be devoting their attention to three important issues: The country's nearly year-old recession, the collapse of the huge energy-trader Enron Corporation, and the war against terror.

One observer, Bill Frenzel, himself a former member of the House (R-Minnesota), says major legislation moves slowly enough through Congress when members' careers are not at stake. "It's difficult in the best of circumstances for our form of government to move policy changes forward. It is much more difficult in what I call congressional election years to do that. And they're going to have that trouble this year."

Another analyst -- Roger Pilon of the Cato Institute, an independent Washington policy center -- says the balance of Republicans and Democrats in Congress will make it even more difficult than in other election years for members to keep their minds on legislation. "In general, congresses do less in election years because they're election years. But this is a special case because both houses of Congress are so closely divided."

The nation's struggling economy already has led to public partisanship. Bush says the best way to restore economic growth is to make further reductions in tax rates. Last year, early in his administration, Bush managed to get Congress to approve an across-the-board tax cut that many economists say was good for the economy.

But the president's recent economic-stimulus proposal, which included more tax cuts, was ignored by the Senate, which has a majority of Democrats. Nearly two weeks ago (4 January), the Democrats' leader in the Senate, Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota), said Bush's approach to stimulating the economy was wrong because the tax-rate reductions focused on the wealthy few, not the broader middle class: "So not only did the tax cut fail to prevent a recession, as its supporters said it would, it probably made the recession worse."

No Democratic politician, including Daschle, suggested an increase in tax rates. But Daschle did say some of the Bush tax cuts should have been smaller. The day after Daschle's statement, Bush responded forcefully during an appearance in California, suggesting that Democrats wanted to raise American's taxes: "Not over my dead body will they raise your taxes."

Frenzel, the former congressman who now is with the Brookings Institution, another Washington policy center, says he hopes that this early factional friction between Bush and Democrats in Congress matures into constructive legislation.

"Nobody -- the Congress or the president -- would like to be accused of unnecessarily prolonging a recession. And if the economy continues to look sluggish, I believe there will be some pressure on the president and the Congress to get together and pass something."

Pilon, of the Cato Institute, is not as optimistic. He believes both sides press their separate agendas rigidly. "I expect that for the remainder of this year, the economy will be used -- and misused -- as a political tool. The reason being that Congress is so closely divided, both houses of Congress."

Frenzel and Pilon say the Enron case may be an even better example of partisan politics at work. At least six congressional committees have begun investigations of Enron, once the seventh-largest corporation in America which last month collapsed under the weight of hidden debt. Enron's top executives made more than $1 billion by selling their stock in the company before the failure, while lower-level employees lost their jobs and their retirement savings.

Both Frenzel and Pilon say members of Congress will pay plenty of attention to Enron, but it will be the wrong kind of attention. They note that Bush, as well as some cabinet members and some senior aides, have had links to Enron. One, Commerce Secretary Don Evans, says Enron's chief executive, Kenneth Lay, even sought help for the corporation before it collapsed.

Evans and other government officials say they gave Enron no help. Frenzel says their statements are supported by the fact that the corporation did, in fact, collapse. But he says that will not stop some members of Congress from trying to turn a business scandal into a political scandal. "When there looks like a good possibility to hector the other party, people are going to take advantage of it."

Pilon agrees. He says the evidence so far is that Bush and his aides did nothing to help Enron. Yet that inaction can be used against them, too. "There is going to be an effort to, on the one hand, criticize them [Bush administration officials] for doing something, and, on the other hand, criticize them for doing nothing -- a kind of 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' situation."

Frenzel and Pilon also agree that there will be no confrontation between Republicans and Democrats over the conduct of Bush's campaign against terrorism. So far, the president has enjoyed virtually unanimous support of Congress for his military, diplomatic, and financial response to the September attacks, and the two political observers say that support will not waver.

But on domestic issues, they say, both sides are ready to do battle, with the futures of their parties at stake.