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Just Call the 110th ‘The Little Congress That Couldn’t’

One of my favorite books as a child was “The Little Engine That Could.” It tells of a small blue switch engine that was called on, when all the bigger locomotives refused, to pull a very long train over a very high mountain.

[IMGCAP(1)]Undaunted by this seemingly impossible task, the little engine embraced the challenge enthusiastically. “I think I can, I think I can,” it repeated as it slowly chugged up the mountain. And, after reaching the peak, it joyously shouted, over and over as the train rolled down the mountainside, “I thought I could, I thought I could.”

I recall this little morality tale about willpower and persistence when I consider the sad plight of the 110th Congress. I have often told groups of students and foreign visitors that the only thing Congress really has to do each year is complete work on the various bills that fund the basic operations of the federal government. Now I must even amend that bare-bones description of Congress’ essential work with various caveats and contingencies.

There used to be 13 regular appropriations bills; now there are 12. And yet this year Congress ducked its responsibility to complete work on all but three bills (only one of which even passed one house before being rolled into a minibus/continuing/supplemental appropriations bill). Instead of pulling its little 12-car train up Capitol Hill, it spent its time devising excuses and blaming others for its inaction. In so doing it, diminished and distinguished itself as “the little Congress that couldn’t.”

What brought the 110th Congress to this sorry state of affairs as the new fiscal year dawned on Oct. 1? There was a rumor circulating early in the session that the Democratic Congress was not going to go through with the appropriations process this year and would instead simply kick the can down the road by enacting a continuing resolution (at last year’s spending levels) that would fund the government into early next year (and indeed, the nine bills not rolled into the minibus have been funded at last year’s level through March 6, 2009).

The rationale being used was this: President Bush had promised to veto any spending bills that exceeded his budget requests and Congress was unlikely to muster the two-thirds override vote in both houses, so why even bother?

Moreover, there was a strong presumption that the Democratic presidential candidate would be elected and support more generous funding levels for domestic programs (that was before the $700 billion bailout add-on, of course). By forgoing long and drawn-out committee and floor battles over a dozen spending bills and then reconciling differences between the two chambers, Democratic leaders reasoned, Congress could complete its work earlier using a CR and send Members home to seal their re-elections, help expand their majorities in both bodies and assist in electing their presidential nominee.

The July blowup in the House Appropriations Committee over a nongermane GOP attempt to open the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education bill to an off-shore drilling amendment gave Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) the final excuse he needed to shut down the process altogether and blame it on the minority. But even prior to that, Democrats were testing all kinds of other reasons for abandoning the process.

Why should the House waste its time and energies when things aren’t going anywhere in the Senate, argued one House Appropriations cardinal? After all, Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) was too weak to run his committee, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) was out on medical leave, and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was away on the campaign trail. Never mind that Byrd was prepared to move forward on his bills until Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) ordered him to suspend activities lest he embarrass the moribund House.

Besides, House Republicans were threatening to offer hundreds of amendments to eliminate costly earmarks. Or, even worse, Republicans were threatening to offer the same amendment, authorizing new offshore oil and gas drilling, to every appropriations bill. This was something Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had vociferously vowed to block given her state’s sensitivity to anything that smacked of tar-smeared beaches (until she reversed course in September).

Each of the excuses contained sufficient elements of genuine fear and foreboding over what might unfold if Democrats dared to expose their bills to the sunlight of democratic process that the case for inaction seemed almost defensible. But it was only defensible if you think the sole responsibility of the ruling majority is to protect its Members from politically difficult votes.

If, on the other hand, you think the principal role of the ruling party is to govern, then that whole scaffolding of excuses quickly collapses, leaving the majority exposed in naked embarrassment and federal, state and local agencies scrambling to compensate for such incompetent budgeting.

James Madison put it best when he said, the “power over the purse” is “the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure.” When Congress abdicates that power it is forfeiting its obligation to the people to govern responsively and justly.

The true test of a responsible majority in Congress is whether it fully carries out its constitutional duties in the face of real and imagined threats and difficulties, is courageous enough to fight for what it considers right, accepts the consequences and lets the people judge the results.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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