Don't expect anything big out of Congress
By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
No one will accuse lawmakers of working overtime in 2006.
The House of Representatives plans to spend 97 days in Washington this year, 11 days fewer than it stayed in session in 1948, the year President Harry Truman called Congress a "do-nothing," according to Kathy Kiely of USA Today.
The Senate is nearly as delinquent. Just try finding a senator for a vote on Mondays or Fridays. You can't.
But it's not merely the length of time that lawmakers remain in town that matters. It's what they do — or don't do — that counts.
By that measure, no one is expecting much from Capitol Hill this year.
One word characterizes the situation: gridlock.
"If last year's legislative agenda was robust, this year's agenda has the makings of being minimalist," said R. Bruce Josten, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "Midterm election years are not a time of political heroism; (they are) a time of political protection."
The urge to play it safe would explain the rush of largely rhetorical issues that are about to clog the Senate's legislative docket: constitutional amendments that would ban flag-burning and same-sex marriages, and a resolution that would censure President Bush for warrantless wiretapping.
Not that these things don't matter. They are likely to rile voters, perhaps enough to compel them to go to the polls in November. That is their greatest value — at least for the pols who plan to shout about them.
Then there is the lobbying legislation. The bill, as it's progressed so far, relies much more on disclosure than on reining in lobbyists or lawmakers. Lobbyists have already figured out ways to get around the few restrictions that the measure does contain.
Most of all, an investment in lobbyists yields so large a return for clients that we can only expect even more money to pour into the influence industry, regardless of how the legislation is ultimately written.
"Whatever (lawmakers) do, the blue-chip lobbying firms will live with it," said Charles Black Jr., chairman of BKSH & Associates, a leading lobbying firm. "If there's more reporting and more paperwork, that will be a little bit of nuisance, but we'll do it."
What lawmakers crave more than a lobbying bill with teeth is a lobbying bill, period. They want the ability to say they voted for "reform" if and when indictments are brought against members of Congress. That, they hope, will be enough to insulate them from voter outrage.
An exception to this trend of doing little could be the immigration bill. The Senate is snarled in a fierce debate on the topic and the result could be a major overhaul of the country's troubled policy.
At the moment, one side wants to secure the borders tightly and perhaps declare illegal immigrants criminals. The other side wants to devise a guest-worker program and maybe provide illegal immigrants with a path to citizenship.
The only thing on which both sides agree is that the borders should be better secured. So don't be surprised if a little tightening of border security is all that comes out in the end. It would be in keeping with the theme of the year.
By placing themselves in a purely reactive mode, lawmakers set themselves up for turmoil. That's what happened with the Dubai Ports World transaction.
Similar lurching responses could happen on other matters, as with the much-criticized prescription drug benefit in Medicare. Such last-minute flailing rarely covers the Congress in glory.
Veteran Washingtonians (read: lobbyists) are accustomed to years like this.
"Election years are not great years, generally speaking," said Ed Rogers of the lobbying firm Barbour Griffith & Rogers. "You notice a little drop in lobbying business before the midterm elections and you notice a bigger drop-off every four years, in presidential election years."
This situation is not helped by the president's dismal job-approval ratings, which are making the Republican majority nervous and the Democratic minority eager to capitalize on anything that might give them political advantage.
"The two political parties are in what seems to be a perpetual war for political power, making it even harder to forge a compromise," Josten said.
Which is a formula for a lost legislative year.
Jeffrey H. Birnbaum covers lobbying for The Washington Post.