April 29, 2004
Record Gridlock Good for Liberals
Stalemate has become standard operating procedure for Congress in recent years, but this year's legislative gridlock could be headed for the record books. That's a source of frustration for Jewish activists across the political spectrum -- but also of guilty relief for some.
Important bills have little chance of moving forward in a session marred by election year politics and a new, venomous partisanship. But for liberal Jewish groups, the clogged congressional arteries also mean a partial respite from the conservative onslaught.
Still, no Jewish group takes any joy in a legislative tangle that blocks good legislation and bad and keeps Congress from dealing with a host of long-term problems that are just getting worse as lawmakers quibble.
The reasons for the current gridlock are many, but they can be boiled down to a few basic ones, starting with the rancorous, uncompromising mood of the congressional leadership. In the age of Michael Savage and Rush Limbaugh, you don't debate and find the middle ground, you maul.
In the House, the GOP leadership has made almost no effort to reach across party lines to the Democrats. Things are hardly any better in the Senate, where the traditional collegiality is now just a memory.
One particularly graphic example: Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) recently traveled to South Dakota to campaign against his Democratic counterpart, minority leader Tom Daschle, a spectacular breach of the etiquette of that body.
The Republicans have a solid enough majority in the House to pass most conservative legislation, but Senate rules that give added power to the minority are proving an insurmountable roadblock to congressional action.
But there are other reasons for the legislative gridlock, including the fact that in this election year, lawmakers are reluctant to confront problems that don't conform to their simplistic campaign slogans.
The budget is a mess and everybody knows it is going to take Draconian action to deal with it -- huge program cuts or tax increases -- but that's the last thing nervous partisans on both sides of the aisle want.
The Bush administration, preoccupied by the deteriorating situation in Iraq, has not aggressively pushed its domestic legislative agenda, adding to the congressional malaise.
While nobody cheers the results, this latest do-nothing Congress has a silver lining for liberal Jewish groups.
"A lot of things we expected would go through very quickly in this Congress have stalled," said an official with one group, "and given the current political climate, that may be the best we can hope for."
An example: the stalled effort to reauthorize the controversial 1996 welfare reform law. The original law included the first national "charitable choice" provisions, whic opened the door to government contracts for religious groups to provide social services; the reauthorization was expected to renew and expand those provisions.
But the bill was yanked when senators got hopelessly bogged down in debates over minimum-wage provisions, and nobody, apparently, thought it was worth trying to hammer out a compromise.
Overall, the president's faith-based initiative is not likely to get much of a hearing in a Congress ideologically disposed to it, but not disposed to find the compromises it will take to enact the plan into law.
And some legislation is more useful stalled than passed.
A constitutional amendment barring gay marriage and an extension of the controversial Patriot Act are unlikely to move this year, in part because many Republican leaders expect to gain political mileage by blaming the Democrats for holding them back. Many Democrats are working to block those bills -- and the Republicans aren't trying very hard to get past those roadblocks.
But the gridlock is also sidelining measures these Jewish groups support, including an expanded hate crimes statute and the Workplace Religious Freedom Act (WRFA).
Jewish leaders are pushing legislation to provide $100 million in homeland security money to help nonprofit agencies, including synagogues and Jewish schools, protect themselves against terror attacks.
But congressional leaders are much more interested in playing partisan "gotcha" than in figuring out how to the provide the money.
And then there's the budget time bomb.
Congress didn't deal with the soaring deficit last year, when it failed to pass 11 of 13 appropriations bills, and it's unlikely to do much better this year. Instead, most observers expect another big, pork-laden "continuing resolution" -- Congress-talk for a gimmick to put off hard budget decisions.
That's good news -- sort of -- for agencies that expect big cuts when Congress finally does start dealing with the runaway deficit. But in the end, putting off a serious budget reckoning will only compound the problem.
Jewish groups don't have magic answers to the budget crisis, but almost all agree: the longer Congress fiddles while the budget burns, the worse will be the ultimate consequences.
And forget about meaningful Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security reform to keep the vital programs solvent when the Baby Boom generation hits the Golden Years.
Recent history suggests the "What, Me Worry" Congress will be overwhelmingly reelected on Nov. 2, but it sure won't be because of its distinguished legislative record.