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Is scandal bogging down Congress? Not so fast


By Candy Crowley
CNN Congressional Correspondent

October 2, 1998
Web posted at: 11:09 a.m. EDT (1109 GMT)

In this story:

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and a Congress paralyzed by the Clinton scandal: All, arguably, are folklore.

starr documents
Starr documents, seen here in transit Sept. 18, have been the talk of the town  

As the 105th Congress moves into its final days, there is considerable and partisan debate over whether the nation's business has been properly addressed.

To be sure, there's no lack of things that have been left undone: HMO reform, campaign finance reform, an overall budget bill for fiscal 1999, and several appropriations bills -- providing money to run the government -- that were supposed to have been passed and sent to the White House by Thursday. Oops.

Still, closer examination suggests all this may be more attributable to the fact this is an election year than to preoccupation with the Clinton-Lewinsky-Starr matter. The scandal fallout on Capitol Hill, thus far, may be more a matter of attitude than outcome.

A political El Niño

In certain ways, the Lewinsky affair has become a political El Niño, getting blamed for what people say and don't say, for what gets done and what does not.

But break things down a bit, and the theory of this "El Niño effect" on Capitol Hill's legislative performance doesn't appear to hold water. What surfaces is a pretty typical political year in the legislative arena:

  • HMO reform

    Reform of the health care industry, in various permutations, has been on the congressional docket for years, long before Monica Lewinsky was a household name. Clearly a public priority, HMO reform will not clear Congress again this year.

    Republicans say Democrats were more interested in a campaign issue than a bill. Democrats say Republicans were carrying water for the health insurance industry.

  • Education reform

    A variety of education bills will die quietly in the 105th, to be revived noisily on the campaign trail.

    Republicans favor vouchers, allowing parents to choose their children's elementary schools; Democrats say that's only a way to help the rich pay for private education with federal tax dollars.

    Democrats favor more federal dollars for school repairs, after-school programs and more teachers; Republicans say federal aid for education has risen while performance has declined.

  • Federal judgeships

    The Republican-controlled majority has confirmed fewer than half of the nominees for federal judgeships sent to the Senate. "It is a far-right thing," complained one Democrat.

    But Republicans led by Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, argue judges should interpret the law, not make it, and they are using their power to protest what they see as an increasingly activist bent among federal jurists.

    surplus clock
    Clinton would rather Congress focus on the budget surplus  

    The budget

    This fall is not the first time Congress has missed budget deadlines, as everyone who remembers 1996 knows.

    While it happened back when they were in charge as well, Democrats see the budget mess as a failure of the Republican leadership to get its act together. Said one critic, "It is the right versus the far right."

    For the record, Republicans complain that Democrats are of two minds, the left and the far left.

    And on and on. Republicans and Democrats have disagreed themselves into inaction.

    New boldness to press conservative agenda

    None of this is to say that the Clinton-Lewinsky-Starr matter has not affected the atmosphere.

    Republicans are boldly pressing a conservative agenda, and the president and his Capitol Hill allies are arguably in a weakened position to pick a nasty fight.

    In January, there was the GOP's weeklong debate and ultimate vote to rename Washington's National Airport to Ronald Reagan National Airport.

    There have been three votes on banning so-called "partial birth abortions." The most recent fell three votes short of overriding the president's veto.

    Consideration of a constitutional amendment to prohibit burning the U.S. flag remains a possibility before the October 9 recess. Also on tap may be debate of a Republican tax cut bill that's unlikely, because of presidential opposition, to ever become law.

    Meantime, months of uncertainty and nights of fearing the next day's headlines have taken a toll on Democrats. The prominence the scandal has been given has somewhat muted their agenda.

    One Republican staffer noted, "I think Democrats don't know how to help the president and still separate themselves from him."

    See the replay on campaign trail

    It may be that a case can be made by all sides that Congress did not attend to the nation's business during the 105th.

    Democrats will argue that case on the campaign trail as they push for HMO, education and campaign finance reforms.

    Republicans, with independent polls showing Congress more popular now than at any time since the early 1970s, will counter that the 105th has produced the first balanced budget in three decades, along with IRS reform, tax relief and a comprehensive Highway Transportation Bill.

    Besides, the GOP argues, sometimes the nation is served as well by what doesn't happen as what does.

    While the Clinton-Lewinsky-Starr matter may be an excuse for what did or did not happen this year, the calendar suggests that election-year politics is a more tried-and-true reason. It would seem you can't blame this one on El Niño, perhaps even a political one.

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