When the 100th Congress finally adjourned this past week - well past the time most members wanted to be on the campaign trail at home - it left a lot of unfinished business. But most experts agree it also accomplished more than any previous Congress since 1965.
That can be taken two ways. An active Congress is not necessarily a good Congress. Producing new laws may be creating new problems instead of solving old ones. New programs are not always a good thing, especially if they are going to cost more money in an already debt-ridden government.What did the Congress get done? Generally, it was a mixed bag. A few examples:
- Passed the budget on deadline for the first time in 12 years, although the final figures were fudged, as usual, to make the deficit appear smaller than it actually is. That was done to placate voters in an election year and also to avoid across-the-board cuts required under Gramm-Rudman if the deficit reaches a certain level.
- Extended catastrophic health care coverage to Medicare patients, although predicted taxes on the elderly to help pay for the program are proving to be higher than expected. The bill may need revising next year.
- Reformed the welfare system to provide more intensive job training and child-care services.
- Widened fair housing laws to prohibit discrimination against renters with children and strengthened enforcement of all fair housing laws by allowing the government to initiate action.
- Toughened regulations against lobbying by former members of the executive branch and applied them to Congress for the first time.
- Continued federal financing of sewage treatment grants to local governments. This was passed over the president's veto.
- Passed a new trade bill, but not until some of the worst aspects were removed under threat of a veto.
Other laws dealt with medical waste disposal, endangered species, protection of "whistle-blowers," credit card interest rates, making the Veterans Administration a Cabinet post, and programs for the homeless.
Military aid to the Nicaraguan Contras died in the 100th Congress and there are few prospects for it to be revived in the future, thus dooming the Contra cause. A crackdown on civil liberties by the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua has not caused Congress to change its mind. Many wish the issue would just go away.
Some other things that didn't pass, but are sure to return for the 101st Congress, include a new, tougher clear air bill; federally financed child care; unpaid parental leave programs, seen as a wedge in the door for future paid parental leave policies; tougher South Africa sanctions; airline consumer protection; campaign finance reform, and raising the minimum wage.
Some of these ideas are worthy, but many did not deserve to succeed anyway. Fierce fights can be expected the next time around. Much of the outcome will depend on who sits in the White House, since most observers expect Congress will remain in Democratic hands.