Congress deserves better ratings, but not by much

Published 1:23 pm Thursday, September 13, 2007

Congress returned to town this week with its poll ratings even lower than President Bush’s. That’s because nearly all the public ever sees is congressional leaders fighting and accomplishing nothing.

But that’s not a completely accurate picture. By the time Congress adjourned for the August recess, it actually had racked up some legislative accomplishments that voters didn’t appreciate.

So perhaps a fair grade for the 110th Congress so far would be an F for style, a C-plus for effort and an Incomplete for quality of achievement. There is plenty of room for checking the box “shows improvement.”

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What Congress has accomplished this year came in two bursts — the first “100 hours,” when the House pushed through much of its promised “Six in ‘06” agenda, and the final 100 hours or so last month, when both the House and Senate processed a bevy of legislation.

In between, what occurred was five months of nearly nonstop ugliness — failed Democratic efforts to stop the Iraq war, a fractious and futile fight over immigration reform, vengeful exercises of legislative oversight designed to discredit the Bush administration, and shouting matches between majority Democrats and minority Republicans.

Even the pre-adjournment legislative push was clouded over by a raucous late-night dust-up over a thwarted House GOP move to deny benefits to illegal immigrants that made for great television, doubtless reinforcing the public’s impression of a Congress in total disarray.

It’s not a complete misimpression. Partisan wrangling is the dominant activity of this Congress. It makes a mockery of the fervent proclamations by leaders of both parties in January that they understood voters’ dismay with endless, needless point-scoring and the desire that Congress solve their urgent problems.

Congress’ failure to make problem-solving its dominant activity accounts for its low public esteem. Polls on public approval of Congress average 22 percent, compared with 33 percent for Bush. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that only 14 percent have confidence that Congress will do the right thing.

But Congress has done some things right this year. Notice should be taken of them.

A statistical rundown by Brookings Institution scholars published in The New York Times on Aug. 26 showed that the current House is running well ahead of recent Congresses in terms of days in session, bills passed and hearings held. The Senate has a mixed record.

One unappreciated accomplishment was overwhelming passage of a $43 billion program designed to bolster America’s competitiveness by doubling its scientific research budget and training more scientists and linguists.

Sponsored by Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Reps. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., and Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., the final bill passed the House 367-57 and by voice vote without dissent in the Senate.

Other bills passed and sent to the president this year include an increase in the minimum wage, lobbying and ethics reform and homeland security enhancements fulfilling the recommendations of the presidential 9/11 Commission.

Also on the list, but the subject of ongoing partisan division, was last-minute legislation authorizing the government to conduct no-warrant intercepts of electronic communication between two overseas parties when the messages pass through a server in the United States.

Civil liberties groups, many Democrats and some editorial writers contend that the measure authorized “domestic spying on U.S. citizens,” but the objections seem to reflect distrust of the Bush administration more than any leeway in the law to tap persons in the United States.

Congress will revisit the issue and to the extent that controversy continues, it will reinforce public dismay that its leaders would rather fight than protect them from terrorism.

Meanwhile, some of the claimed accomplishments of the Democratic Congress are less than stellar. Energy bills passed by both chambers fall far short of setting the nation on a path to independence. Neither contains a gasoline tax, encouragement for nuclear power or provisions to expand America’s electricity grid.

Farm legislation that passed the House limits subsidies to the richest American farmers but basically leaves intact a subsidy system for corporate farmers that artificially inflates land values, inhibits rural development, hurts farmers in poor countries and puts the United States in danger of world trade sanctions.

Bush has signaled his intention to veto both the House farm bill and the Senate energy bill — and also both the House and Senate measures expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. The Senate SCHIP bill has funding flaws but basically is a responsible, bipartisan bill that deserves to survive a veto.

With Congress back, the prospect is for more combat with Bush, largely over spending and Iraq. The country will be lucky to avoid government shutdowns as the two sides trade charges that the other is fiscally irresponsible.

And a flurry of progress reports on Iraq is only stimulating new rancor, despite widespread underlying agreement that troop withdrawals need to be gradual and responsible.

Congress and the Bush administration ought to resolve to improve their public esteem not at each other’s expense, but by seeking agreement in the public interest. Admittedly, the chances are slim.