A Closely Divided Congress Can't Get Traction on Legislation


Term limits for politicians are a way of life in most states and many cities, but Congress scoffs at the notion for itself. "Partial-birth" abortions in recent years have been banned by 20 states, but Congress is unable to make a nationwide ban stick even though a majority favors one.

Affirmative action is under assault in states like California, but most federal lawmakers continue to defend such federal programs. On health care reform and campaign finance reform, the prevailing sentiments on Capitol Hill are at odds with those in the heartland.

The seeming disconnect between Washington and the rest of the country on those and other big issues--especially in an election year--is all the more striking because members of Congress are so quick to proclaim that they speak for "the American people."

Is Capitol Hill losing touch with Main Street?

Perhaps. But other forces are at work too.

Lawmakers here appear out of step with their state counterparts--and the wishes of the people as expressed through voter referendums--because the GOP's slim majority in both chambers has made it difficult for Congress to act on many issues, with states often taking the lead.

"This is a very closely divided Congress. It takes a lot of leverage to make things happen," said Norman Ornstein, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

The situation is especially pronounced in the Senate, where Republicans outnumber Democrats, 55 to 45, but where it often takes 60 votes to make things happen because of procedural rules. While the minority party always has been able to affect Senate business disproportionately, today's Democrats have refined that role to an art form.

Coalition-building becomes more difficult still because lawmakers often confound expectations by casting unpopular or unexpected votes.

"It's hard to put together majorities around here," noted Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), a former governor.

The recent Senate move to force states to lower the legal blood-alcohol content for drivers is a good example. Although Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) is an ardent backer of states' rights, he voted for a national standard because "it was the right thing to do." But Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who championed the lower limit as governor and state senator, voted against the requirement, saying it was a matter better left for states to decide.

Another illuminating incident occurred in February on campaign finance reform. Most senators favored a major reform measure but were unable to muster the necessary 60 votes to overcome a filibuster by opponents. Similarly, the "partial-birth" abortion ban has enjoyed even deeper support, but backers have been unable to get the two-thirds majority to override President Clinton's repeated vetoes.

Faced with one impasse after another, activists on a wide range of issues have been taking their causes to the states. And they are making unparalleled gains.

Raymond C. Scheppach, executive director of the National Governors' Assn., is not surprised.

"It's very seldom that the federal government goes into an area and legislates first," he said. "What you often see first are experiments at the state levels."

In addition, Congress--especially the Senate--traditionally has played a key role in dampening public passions, with an array of checks and balances provided by the founding fathers.

Last month, shortly after Clinton called for a ban on human cloning, a proposal to do so was rushed to the Senate floor, bypassing the traditional committee process. But Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) raised enough questions about the ramifications of a ban to force advocates to take their bill through a full committee.

Such delays, for better or worse, are increasingly prompting activists to turn to the states for faster relief.

Advocates of term limits, for instance, have all but abandoned hope of persuading Congress to embrace the concept.

The issue occupied a prominent place in the "contract with America," the 1994 campaign manifesto that helped Republicans take control of Congress. But in 15 votes taken since 1995, the House has failed to muster the necessary two-thirds majority to adopt a term-limits constitutional amendment. The proposal also has fallen short in the Senate in assorted procedural votes.

"As long as Congress is comprised of politicians, it's never going to pass an amendment," said Paul Jacob, head of U.S. Term Limits, an advocacy group.

Instead, he and his allies are pressing their case in the states. Already, California and 17 other states limit legislative terms, while 38 limit gubernatorial tenures. Many cities, including New York and Los Angeles, limit mayoral terms.

Similarly, foes of "partial-birth" abortions, having failed to prevail in Washington, are pressing their fight in the states. So far, 20 states have prohibited the procedure, and others may follow suit. Just this month, a ban cleared both houses in Virginia, while the Florida legislature overrode a veto by Gov. Lawton Chiles.

"Activists have found ways in states to frame issues in ways that make them easier to promote than in Congress," said Ornstein.

The same dynamics are at play in the GOP drive to require unions to obtain authorization from members before spending their dues for political campaigns.

Senate Democrats in February effectively blocked such a proposal. But a similar initiative on the June ballot in California enjoys strong public backing in the polls.

The referendum "was not a response to a grass-roots demand that Congress ignored," said Ornstein. "This is clearly being manipulated by politicians and ideological professionals who are trying to frame it in a way that will achieve public support."

On affirmative action, a majority in Congress still staunchly backs such programs even as they come under increasing assault around the country. But in California, the university system has stopped considering race, ethnicity and gender in admissions while the executive branch has ended such programs in state contracts.

But the U.S. Senate last month killed a proposal by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to end a Department of Transportation program that gives 10% of highway contracts to construction firms owned by women and minorities.

And while Congress in recent years has tried, largely without success, to extend coverage to the uninsured, states have moved aggressively on health care reform. They also are leading the way in adopting consumer safeguards for patients while the effort in Congress is stalled.

On campaign finance reform, although the House is scheduled to take up a GOP proposal later this week, its passage is considered a long shot.

In the meantime, the reform movement is alive and well in a number of states, where voters have approved initiatives to change the way elections are financed, and in courthouses around the country, where lawsuits have been filed to challenge the existing system.

There is perhaps no better illustration of the inability of Congress to proceed on a vital public issue than the current Senate stalemate over education reform, which has surged toward the top of voter concerns.

For weeks the Senate has deadlocked over a controversial proposal to create tax-preferred savings accounts for elementary and secondary students--with most Democrats opposing the plan as a boon for the wealthy while demanding new funds for hiring more teachers and restoring dilapidated schools.

From such conflicts emerges the image of a Congress that may be out of touch, some lawmakers said.

"People here tend not to be broadly representative of the people at large," said Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), a second-term populist and former political science professor.

And with the massive infusion of special-interest contributions, he added, "you end up with a fairly skewed pattern of representation."

Rep. Linda Smith (R-Wash.), an ardent term-limits proponent, agreed.

"The more years that members live here, the less they go home and hang out and have people say: "You know what?' " she said.

"And having aides around you all the time, taking care of your needs, having special bathrooms, special elevators, a special place to eat, having people open doors for you--that's not the real world," Smith said. "There's a disconnect because the system forces it."

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