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A Bitter End

In the month since Election Day, Congress has been busier than almost anyone could have anticipated. And what leaders have chosen to focus their attention on has been even more surprising.

A crucial omnibus spending bill couldn’t quite make it to the president’s desk before Thanksgiving. Reform of the nation’s intelligence apparatus will also have to wait until at least next month.

Whatever one’s view on the specifics of the proposed reforms, the failure to reach an accord on the intelligence overhaul demonstrated that House Republicans actually have the backbone to stand up to the Bush administration and assert the legislative branch’s role in crafting national policy.

Other developments were less fortunate. The way the omnibus was derailed — by a mysterious tax provision that had to be “discovered” by a Senate staffer and for which no one would take credit — offered a stark example of what is wrong with the budget and appropriations process and epitomized the kind of mischief Congress has gotten itself into during the past month.

With important policy matters languishing, GOP leaders, emboldened by increased majorities, have chosen to focus their attention on threatening those who might stand in their way and changing the rules of the game midstream.

In the Senate, leaders allowed a would-be Judiciary chairman who dared to suggest that the chamber might have some input on the makeup of the federal judiciary to twist in the wind for the better part of two weeks. Faced with the prospect of more Democratic-led filibusters, the Majority Leader embraced the idea of rendering the legislative tactic moot, for no better reason than that he has the votes to do it.

House Republicans, meanwhile, busied themselves with threatening retaliatory ethics complaints against those who questioned the conduct of Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) — even as they suggested significantly raising the bar for seeing such complaints considered. And in a gesture that was clearly painful for many in the GOP Conference, they reversed a 10-year-old reform meant to differentiate themselves from what they viewed at the time as a corrupt Democratic majority, by agreeing to let DeLay retain his post should he be indicted as part of an ongoing Texas probe.

On their way out the door, appropriators joined the party by taking the time to adopt provisions sought by the Federal Election Commission allowing (among other things) Members to use federal campaign funds in state and local races — something the public was hardly clamoring for. No hearings were held on these matters in the committee of jurisdiction, Senate Rules and Administration. Not surprisingly, the Senate rejected one other measure to enhance political transparency that the FEC had hoped to approve this year: requiring Senate campaigns to file electronically with the FEC, a long-sought reform embraced by the House years ago.

Both chambers will return in a week. As much as we like to see Congress going about its business seriously and methodically, here’s hoping that meeting moves swiftly and keeps Members from the temptation of more mischief. Then we’ll keep our fingers crossed that the 109th Congress will open on a more productive note.

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