WASHINGTON—The 109th Congress recesses this weekend for November's elections having earned a reputation among scholars as a "do-nothing Congress" of historic proportions.
It failed to enact a host of once top-priority legislation on issues such as overhauling Social Security, immigration and lobbying laws. None of those is expected to be resolved in Congress' brief lame-duck session after the elections.
Lawmakers worked three-day weeks and took lots of time off. Both parties generally eschewed compromise. The Republican-led Congress conducted little meaningful oversight of the Bush administration and its policies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yet the do-nothing label belies at least three substantial legacies that this Congress will leave the nation:
_A surge in pork-barrel projects for lawmakers' constituents back home.
_Deference to a same-party president that shifted unchecked power to the executive branch and extended government's reach into people's private lives.
_New rules that permit the government to hold suspected terrorists indefinitely without charges, to use harsh interrogation measures on them if the president approves and to convict them using evidence that would be inadmissible in any other court.
Republicans tout some of Congress' accomplishments on the home front, including pension revisions and keeping taxes down. They blame the small number of legislative accomplishments in part on Democrats' obstruction and more pressing wartime priorities.
"The post-9-11 world is a hugely different world, and the way the Congress functions has changed fundamentally," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H. "We're so overwhelmingly absorbed by the issue of our national security and keeping ourselves from being attacked again."
Democrats, for their part, accuse Republicans of politicizing national security at a cost to the nation's traditions of free expression and human rights. They say the Republican-led Congress is but a rubber stamp for Bush, and its actions haven't made America safer.
"This Congress does exactly what the president tells them to do; a complacent, complicit Congress," said Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives.
Democrats deny that their "obstructionism" limited Congress' achievements. Instead they blame Republican infighting on immigration, stem cells, spending and treatment of detainees. They deride the Republican leadership's fixation on tax cuts and social conservatives' unpopular priorities, such as last year's legislative effort to prolong the life of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman in a vegetative state.
Voters aren't happy with either party.
A New York University national survey released Friday showed that most Americans think that Congress either can't or won't fix long-term problems, such as global warming, Social Security, Medicare and even aging roads and bridges.
Two of Washington's most respected scholars of Congress—Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank, and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right research center—co-authored a new book on the legislature, "The Broken Branch." They argue that Congress is at a self-inflicted nadir.
They note that President Harry Truman first stuck the "do-nothing" tag on Congress in 1948. That year Congress was in session 110 days. This year Congress completes only 94 days of work before recessing for the elections.
Lawmakers typically are in Washington only from Tuesdays through Thursdays.
Mann and Ornstein say Congress' Republican leadership has taken traditional abuses of power farther than ever: They bypass committees, cut off floor debate, disallow amendments, force hasty votes on major bills that few have read and sometimes keep 15-minute vote counts open for hours while they browbeat junior members into supporting their position.
To be sure, there were instances when this Congress challenged the Bush administration, such as the Dubai ports deal and scrutiny of the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Hurricane Katrina. One committee investigated and publicized the activities of Jack Abramoff, a corrupt Republican lobbyist.
Three senior Senate Republicans—John McCain of Arizona, John Warner of Virginia and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina—convinced the White House to make some concessions over the detention and trials of suspected terrorists. But civil rights experts say the senators didn't force the White House to give up much.
That's consistent with U.S. history. Since the nation's start, executive power has grown during wartime, only to subside later, said John J. Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California. He worked for Vice President Dick Cheney when Cheney was a congressman from Wyoming.
"It's no accident that in the 1990s we were talking about the increase of legislative power over the executive," Pitney said. "That came between the Cold War and 9-11."
On balance, scholars say Republican congressional leaders ignored their duty to question decision-making and investigate corruption within the Bush administration. "They've done almost no oversight on the war or almost anything that matters," Ornstein said.
In contrast, in the 1990s Republicans in Congress investigated whether President Clinton had used the White House Christmas card mailing list to scout for donors.
"There were (more than) 100 hours of oversight hearings on alleged misuse of the Clinton Christmas card list, and 12 hours of hearings on Abu Ghraib. This tells you all you need to know," Ornstein said.
There's one area, however, in which scholars say members of both parties have excelled over the past two years: serving their constituents massive amounts of pork-barrel spending.
The taxpayer watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste identified 9,963 special pork projects in the federal budget this year, collectively worth $29 billion. In 1996, the group found 958 projects worth less than $13 billion.
"Here, Congress has done a hell of a job, and every lawmaker has his earmark to show it," said Stephen J. Wayne, a government professor at Georgetown University.
The surge, Wayne said, tracks with trends in congressional redistricting that have made most seats in the House safe for one party or the other. One result of that is a polarized Congress. Another is that it gives lawmakers an incentive to tend to their own backyards and ignore national issues. "Congress is the only institution I can think of where the whole is less than the sum of its parts," Wayne said.
The ambition of Congress' agenda in its lame-duck session later this year will depend largely on whether Democrats capture either legislative chamber in November. That could compel Republicans to try to act while they still can, or Democrats to try to run out the clock.
"You want an irony of history?" Pitney said. "Everybody remembers the so-called `do nothing' Congress Truman ran against, but it was one of the most productive in history." It passed the National Security Act that reorganized the military, creating the Defense Department, Air Force, CIA and National Security Council. And it overrode Truman's veto of the anti-labor union Taft-Hartley Act.
This year, the case for a do-nothing Congress "is far stronger than it was in 1948," Pitney said. "But it's not a presidential election year. So the argument has to be made by (Democratic) members of Congress. And if Democrats talk about a do-nothing Congress, the danger is the public will find a plague on both their houses."
Sworn in in January 2005, the 109th Congress was poised to help President Bush carry out an ambitious agenda for conservatives on fiscal, religious and social issues. Republicans scored some victories, but had more mixed results or high-profile failures.
_More lenient rules for interrogating and trying terrorism suspects.
_Confirmation of two Supreme Court justices and other conservative jurists.
_Funding for fence construction along U.S.-Mexican border.
_Renewal of the Patriot Act.
_Tax cuts for individuals and businesses.
_Bankruptcy and tort-law overhauls.
_Omnibus energy and transportation bills.
_Voting rights act extension.
_Allowing transport of cheap prescription drugs from Canada.
_Social Security and Medicare fiscal changes.
_Comprehensive immigration law changes.
_Comprehensive lobbying law changes.
_Passage of most annual appropriations bills.
_Constitutional bans on same-sex marriage and flag burning.
_Funding for new embryonic stem-cell research (vetoed).
_Repeal of estate tax.
_Minimum wage increase.
_Closing gaps in Medicare prescription-drug plan.
_Expanded offshore oil and gas exploration.
_Restrictions on president's warrantless wiretap program.
_Action against identity theft.
_Action to curb global warming.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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