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Do Your Duty

Just when Congressional Democrats and Republicans, the White House and hopeful journalists began to cheer the possibilities for bipartisanship in the wake of passage of an economic stimulus package, politics-as-usual reasserted itself with a dust-up over terrorist surveillance legislation. And, sadly, more is to come.

The worst of it is that Congress and the White House let politics interfere with the most basic functions of government — protecting the national security and even passing appropriations bills to keep the government functioning.

No one expects politicians of different parties to abandon their basic principles in the name of consensus, but they do owe it to the nation to conduct their debates in such a way as to achieve a satisfactory outcome.

That isn’t happening in the case of the Protect America Act and there is every danger that it won’t happen — again this year — with appropriations bills. Congress left town allowing the law authorizing terrorist surveillance to lapse. Democrats demanded an extension of the old law. President Bush said he’d veto it. So, it lapsed.

Until Congress gets back, the nation is not in as great danger as the administration charges. But it isn’t as safe as Democrats maintain, either. Terrorist-intercept operations initiated since Congress passed a short-term authorization last summer can continue. But new ones will have to be approved under the burdensome procedure of applying for warrants to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

The administration has a point in claiming that Congress has had six months to renew the law. Instead of doing so, it has wrangled about whether telecommunication companies deserve immunity from lawsuits for cooperating with the government in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. We will not take a view on the merits of that dispute, but it is unconscionable that the Senate waited until last week — as the old law’s temporary extension ran out — to pass its version of the bill, and that the administration refused to agree to a short extension.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is signaling that Congress may not process fiscal 2009 appropriations bills this year and will wait instead for a new president to be elected to determine government priorities.

House Appropriations subcommittee “cardinals” reportedly want to begin writing appropriations bills as soon as they have been issued budget allocations, but Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) hasn’t signaled yet whether they will do so or will wait until after the elections — or after the new president’s inauguration.

We can understand the impulse. Bush, though a lame duck, has submitted a lowball budget that majority Democrats regard as unreasonable. They don’t want to go through a messy veto process when he’ll be gone three and half months into the next fiscal year.

Still, the Appropriations committees in both chambers owe it to the public — which relies on the orderly functioning of government — to hold hearings and markups, set spending priorities and negotiate with the White House. If they have to wait on the next president to get bills finally passed, so be it. But they ought to have them ready on Inauguration Day. It’s their job. They should do it.

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