2004 Has 50-50 Chance of Being a Productive Year for Congress

The pre-adjournment wrangling in Congress over health care, energy and other legislation is shaped, at least in part, by a basic piece of conventional wisdom: Get it done now, for the built-in realities of any election year will make it impossible for Congress to do much legislatively in 2004.

You hear it all over town — from Members of Congress and staff, from reporters and from pundits. But, as recent history shows, the conventional wisdom is wrong. The dynamics of presidential and Congressional campaigns drive bills to enactment in an election year as often as they block them.

Consequently, as lawmakers decide the fate of bills before them now, they should consider the chances of getting better ones next fall. Those chances, in turn, will be determined by at least four different, though interrelated, scenarios for 2004 — two painted by Republicans, two by Democrats:

Republican scenario No. 1: “Dance with the one who brung yeh.” With the economy roaring, the situation calmer in Iraq and no more 9/11s, President Bush is coasting to re-election. Republicans, sensing an opportunity for national realignment, tie their campaigns closely to him. Not since the Lyndon Johnson landslide of 1964, with Democrats controlling the White House and Congress, has one party felt so emboldened to expand its control over the levers of federal power.

On Capitol Hill, Republicans seek to show Americans that they’re in good hands with an all-GOP government. They enact more tax cuts and more health care legislation to address cost and coverage problems, reform the nation’s tort laws, reauthorize federal transportation programs, and strengthen their mainstream bona fides with initiatives in education and the environment. Republicans hold their Members in line while picking off moderate and conservative Democrats who envision a landmark Republican victory and seek to protect themselves.

Republican scenario No. 2: “Head for the hills.” The economy, stalled by rising interest rates in the wake of record budget deficits, continues to produce few jobs. Iraq deteriorates, and a recharged al Qaeda bombs not only U.S. interests in the Middle East, Asia and Europe but also makes good on threats to set off a devastating car bomb in Washington, D.C. Bush’s re-elect numbers plummet and Democrats sense that “it’s déjà vu all over again,” with a failed Bush on the run.

Republicans sense the same thing. Just as they abandoned the first President George Bush in 1992, even overriding his veto of cable TV legislation just before the election, they flee from this one as well. And, also just as in 1992, with the parties far apart on their approaches to issues, Congress becomes a virtual wasteland, with only appropriations and a few noncontroversial measures becoming law.

Democratic scenario No. 1: “The ‘me’ generation.” Bush looks strong and the Democratic nominating process pushes the party further to the left on not just national security and economics, but also affirmative action, abortion and other party mainstays. Congressional Democrats, heeding the warnings of Sen. Zell Miller (Ga.) and other disgruntled voices about the national party’s ideological tilt, break from the nominee.

Eight years earlier, the Republicans of 1996 distanced themselves from Bob Dole’s listless campaign and worked with President Bill Clinton on landmark welfare, immigration, farm, health care and telecommunications legislation. Similarly, the Democrats of 2004 work with Bush on more tax and health care legislation, help push through tort reforms and extend federal transportation programs, and even cooperate on appropriations so lawmakers can go home early to campaign for re-election. And, just as the fire-breathing Republican revolutionaries of 1994 morphed into “common sense” reformers in 1996, so, too, do the Democrats of 2004 set aside their strong dislike of Bush and choose cooperation as the route to self-survival.

Democratic scenario No. 2: “Hit ’em when they’re down.” Bush is weak, the Democratic nominee seems strong and the Democrats are emboldened. The last thing they want to do is prop up a failing president, especially one who sought for years to roll his conservative agenda over, past and through them.

Like the Republicans of 1994 who sought to weaken Clinton, the Democrats of 2004 adopt a “scorched earth” policy of obstruction. A decade ago, it was Clinton’s health care bill as well as telecommunications, Superfund, clean water and housing legislation that fell victim to a nationwide GOP effort at Clinton-bashing. This time, it is Bush’s pension-related tax cuts, another round of anti-terrorism legislation, tort reforms and efforts to expand health care coverage that died.

So, four possible scenarios later, here’s the lesson for Members this fall: Take a good look at the legislation coming your way. The chances are reasonable that you will get a better version next year.