No matter how most Americans feel about the 101st Congress, the nation is preparing for Congress, The Sequel - set to convene with a full plate on Jan. 3. Although the number of Democrats has increased in both the Senate and the House, the cast of characters and the issues remain about the same.
What is different is the urgency with which many of these issues need to be addressed. It is not unusual for Congress to take years to resolve a difficult issue. Congress and the Executive branch, for instance, wrangled for most of the decade before finally agreeing in 1990 on an increase in the federal minimum wage and an overhaul of the Clean Air Act.James Madison, one of the framers of the Constitution, would probably be happy that Congress today seems incapable of swift, decisive action. He said that the Constitution was designed "first to protect the people against their rulers, secondly to protect the people against the transient impressions into which they themselves might be led."
Nevertheless, the nation stands today on the brink of war. The economy is in recession with the banking system in worse shape than at any time since the Great Depression. Vital industries are threatened by increasingly powerful foreign competitors. The cost of health care is a growing burden on everyone. Crime, drug abuse and racial tension all add to a spreading sense of insecurity.
All these issues need to be addressed - quickly and decisively.
At the top of the agenda is the Persian Gulf Crisis, where the level of tension has risen dramatically. Since Congress adjourned, its overwhelming support for President Bush's gulf policy has been undermined by his escalation of U.S. troop strength to more than 400,000.
In that frame of mind, the 102nd Congress immediately faces the prospect of the Jan. 15 deadline by which Iraq's Saddam Hussein is supposed to withdraw from Kuwait.
In the event that Bush carries through with his threat to attack, Congress must decide whether to insist that he obtain a declaration of war or some other endorsement of the action. Many members of Congress still badly want more time for economic sanctions to work against Iraq before taking military action. Events in the next few weeks, especially the possibility of U.S.-Iraqi talks, will affect any debate.
Meanwhile, there are some scenes from the past Congress that could easily be placed in an instant replay mode. Bush vetoed the civil rights bill, which was intended to reverse or modify several Supreme Court decisions that narrowed workers' protections in job discrimination cases.
He also vetoed the bill that would grant unpaid leave to workers caring for newborn children or sick relatives. A third veto killed the bill that would have limited imports of textiles and footwear.
All three of these bills will almost certainly be argued again. There will also be efforts to reform political campaigns. There will be debates about health care, the regulation of cable TV, abortion, mandatory increases in car fuel economy and tax simplification.
James Madison warned that congressional measures would too often be decided on the "prejudices, interests, and pursuits of the individual states, rather than on national prosperity and happiness."
Now is the time for Congress to put away some of those personal prejudices and act in the national interest - with some urgency.