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The first session of the 101st Congress ended not with a bang, but with a whimper at 4:31 A.M. on November 22nd. Having survived one of the shortest and perhaps least noteworthy non-election year sessions in recent memory, the nation's lawmakers returned home to detail for their constituents the accomplishments of the past term. It was, no doubt, a short conversation.

The pace at which this year's legislative agenda proceeded was nothing short of torpid; the members of the 101st Congress left town with very little to show for their efforts.

To be sure, this session was by no means completely superfluous, and Congress has added several noteworthy notches to its legislative belt. Two judges were removed from office, the politically difficult issue of flag-burning was admirably finessed, and the minimum wage was raised for the first time in eight years. Of interest to NSPA members, Section 89 was repealed, the catastrophic insurance program was virtually eliminated, Section 162(1)was extended for another year, and the framework of IRS penalties was radically altered. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the results, these are tangible actions. The problem is, they're just not a lot for eight months' work.

Apologists are quick to point out that it is premature to judge the successes or failures of any Congress after only one session. The theory goes that the groundwork for legislative action is laid during the first session, with that action completed during the second.

While this claim is not entirely without merit, is should be pointed out that groundwork is only apparent for a few issues--clean air, the rights of the disabled and oil spill liability spring to mind. While admittedly important items, one cannot help but notice the lack of groundwork in several other key areas. This year's budget agreement between Congress and the Administration all but disintegrated in the midst of partisan squabbling over capital gains, and a much-needed agreement for next year's targeted $64 billion in budget cuts is nowhere to be found.

Both the executive and the legislative branches had hoped to have something hammered out by last fall. It is, of course, conceivable that such an accord may be hammered out when Congress returns later this month, but it would still leave the FY '91 budget process behind schedule. Furthermore, the acrimony which precluded agreement last fall will make agreement this winter all the more elusive.

Thus, the apologists' apologies only partially strike a responsive chord.

Then there are the cynics who are quick to point out that perhaps Congress' inertia is all for the best. "Would you really want an efficient, well-organized and productive congress?" these libertarians glibly inquire. The implications of an efficient legislature ring ominous in the hearts and minds of these individualists. While their sentiments may be appealing, they bring little focus to the topic at hand.

This leads one back to the central question: exactly what happened (or did not happen) in Congress this year, and is it a harbinger of the future? That is, has Congress become so immobilized by its own processes that real action will only occur on a sporadic basis?

Fortunately, the situation is not as gloomy as these ominous questions might indicate. There are several factors which may account, at least in part, for the numbingly slow pace of progress on the Hill this year. The "first session" theory, discussed above, is one such factor. There are others.

The House of Representatives underwent a painful and prolonged change in leadership earlier this year, after several critical weeks were lost to the paralysis surrounding former Speaker Wright's literary endeavors. Similarly, Senate Democrats elected a new leadership this year. The conventional wisdom holds that, as the term drew to a close, the leadership in both houses proved themselves able helmsmen, setting an auspicious tone for the uncoming session.

Moreover, Jim Wright was far from the only member of Congress to be plagued by matters of "ethics". In fact, it was an unusually busy season for the capital's propriety police. The seriatim investigations of professional and personal conduct had both a direct and indirect effect on the legislative process. Directly, ethics issues consumed an inordinate amount of the precious time on the legislative calendar. Perhaps more importantly, the indirect negative effect of these events on congressional morale certainly spilled over into most other areas of interest.

Further, the capital gains debate almost single-handedly unraveled the budget process theis past year. For this, Congress cannot be expected to shoulder the entire responsibility. An administration short on specific objectives and long on highly criticized election rhetoric felt tremendous pressure to deliver on what was perhaps its only concrete campaign pledge: the restoration of a capital gains rate differential. The tenacity with which the Bush Administration clung to this goal was indeed admirable, or foolhardy, depending on one's own political leanings.

Regardless, the Administration fought too hard on this issue to maintain any semblance of bipartisanship. Feelings were hurt, parties were isolated, and the process slowed down. The repercussions of this legislative strategy will likely still be felt in the White House when Congress addresses the FY '91 budget later this year.

In short, there's a perception in town that Congress really didn't work very well this year, and, in fact, their list of legislative accomplishments is comparatively short and relatively modest. Thus, notwithstanding all the pros and cons outlined above, the nation's lawmakers certainly have their work cut out for them if they are to redeem themselves in their second half.

There's a group here in Washington called the "Capitol Steps." They perform musical comedy, re-writing the words of popular songs to lampoon current events. They appear at a local club on weekends and are a favorite choice for entertainment at meetings and conventions. They're usually very topical, and they're always very funny. During the height of Senator Gary Hart's notoriety, for example, they delivered a hilariously stinging rendition of "To all the Girls I've Loved Before." Good stuff.

One of the most interesting things about the Capitol Steps is its cast--the core of the group is comprised of current and former Capital Hill staffers. In essence, then, these people moonlight by spoofing their bosses! It's all in good fun, however, and most Washington "big-wings" consider it a sign of stature to be on the receiving end of a Capitol Steps parody.

The Capitol Steps usually have several "hits" going at any given time here in town; occasionally, one or two of them will actually get some radio air play (only in Washington D.C.!). A personal favorite appeared last June, in the midst of the subject malaise. Space limitations prohibit reprinting the complete lyrics herein, but it is possible to share the song's title. This little ditty seems to sum up the mood here in Washington and captures the essence of the first session of the 101st Congress in one simple word: "Super-frantic-unproductive-nothing-legislation" (sung to the tune "Super-califragilistic-espeali-docious" with appologies to Walt Disney). The gist of the verses is apparent.

The next time you're in Washington, look up the Capitol Steps; an enjoyable evening is virtually guaranteed. After all, it's been a more productive year for them than for their bosses.
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Title Annotation:101st Congress
Author:Berkery, Peter M, Jr.
Publication:The National Public Accountant
Article Type:column
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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