What's the Latest Buzz in Washington? Zzzzzzzzz...

Dec. 21, 2004
White House, 105th Congress snoozing through Clinton's second term.

There are few fans of small government more vocal than business executives. Agreeing with Thomas Jefferson's observation that government governs best when it governs least, many are fond of declaring--not entirely facetiously--that they'd be content if Congress and the White House did nothing. That way, they contend, Washington can do no harm. Those executives ought to be ecstatic. For on both ends of Pennsylvania Ave., little is happening. On Capitol Hill, the no-longer new 105th Congress so far is one of the most unproductive in memory. And at the White House, incrementalism--rather than ambitious new initiatives--is the order of the day. To understand the degree of the Washington lassitude, you need look no farther than Capitol Hill. In the first three months of this session, the House had passed only 68 bills, the Senate a mere 50. Contrast that with the 104th Congress: In the corresponding period no fewer than 271 bills had cleared the House, 77 the Senate, and much of the Republican Contract with America had been signed into law. It is unfair--and probably undesirable--to expect the 105th Congress' activity level to mirror that of the 104th, which was uniquely energized by giddy Republicans coming into power for the first time in 40 years and talking of revolution. Nor is it to be expected that President Clinton would be the activist he was during the early days of his first term, when, backed by a Democratic Congress, he undertook a plethora of earnest new programs. (Remember his Rube Goldbergian health-care reform effort?) Second terms traditionally are less vigorous than first terms. Yet the current languor is unusual--especially at the start of a new Congress and a new Presidential term. One reason, surely, is the Democratic campaign fundraising scandals. They've provided a partisan undercurrent that pervades Congress. And at the White House, they've not only diverted attention from other issues but at times have paralyzed governance altogether. For example, as of mid-April some 130 senior-level federal jobs and 15 ambassadorships remained unfilled. Why? One reason is Clinton's caution in making nominations, fearing he'll be perceived as rewarding campaign donors, Another reason is Newt Gingrich. Weakened by his ethics reprimand, Gingrich has been a faint shadow of the hard-charging, dynamic leader who was the central figure in Washington two years ago. Although he's now aggressively reemerging, for the first three months of this session he laid low, avoiding controversy and taking refuge in the center. But there's a deeper reason for the Washington inaction--namely, the race for the 2000 Presidential nomination. It already has begun, even though the 1996 campaign is scarcely history. The fact that two likely rivals for the Democratic prize--Vice President Al Gore and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt--are in positions of power has led to internal policy gridlock in the party. Gephardt's desire to separate himself from Gore helps explain why House Democrats have been slow in formulating an updated policy agenda. It also may explain why Gephardt has taken opposite positions from the White House on such issues as China trade, expansion of NAFTA, decertification of Mexico as a U.S. ally in fighting drug trade, and, initially at least, in adjusting the consumer price index. And finally, it may explain why the White House no longer is pushing NAFTA expansion and more free-trade agreements. Among Republicans, House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich also is thought to harbor presidential ambitions. Thus, Congress-watchers believe, he's trying to differentiate himself from both Democrats and potential rivals within his party, which in turn has hindered the quest for a budget compromise. Kasich, for example, has piqued many Republicans--not to mention business supporters--by his strong opposition to "corporate welfare." Normally, a new Congress and a new Administration are most productive during their opening months; they're least productive during the months just before elections. But that traditional pattern has been reversed. The 105th Congress and Clinton Administration II are off to turtle-like starts. Yet last fall the 104th Congress and Clinton Administration I closed with a rare flurry; both feeling vulnerable to charges of inaction as the election loomed, they cooperated to enact several substantive bills. Will that pattern--early inactivity, late activity--become the norm? No one knows, least of all business executives. To be sure, they'd be thrilled to see passage of laws that benefit their companies--for example, product-liability reform or a lower capital-gains tax. But failing that, the quiet suits them just fine.

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