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A sorry session

The 102nd Congress adjourned Friday, ending a two-year session that was more notable for shortcomings than for success. The Washington Post tagged its performance "one of the thinnest records of legislative achievement within memory," and backed that up with a sorry list of congressional fumbles. With a few exceptions in the areas of civil rights, energy and arms control, most of the really critical issues fell victim to partisan squabbling or were sidestepped altogether during 1991-92. Health care? Education? Jobs, banks, the deficit? Plenty of sound and fury issued from Capitol Hill, but nothing of lasting significance was enacted.

To avoid punching their ballots for another star-crossed lineup this next time around, voters might consider these three factors that weighed heavily on the 102nd Congress:

Gridlock. President Bush vetoed 36 bills, including legislation on campaign financing, voter registration, family leave and abortion. Congress could only marshal the forces to override a single veto, thereby salvaging its effort to regulate the cable television industry. While cable TV is a popular consumer-constituent issue, one wonders why Congress ran out of steam on everything else.

Other significant bills fell prey to partisan interests long before they reached the White House. A divided Senate killed legislation on public education, gun control and fetal tissue research, for instance. The only education bill to be approved by the Senate, the House and President Bush was a noncontroversial measure on expanding assistance to college students.

Avoidance. The real difficult issues, mired in the shadow of the federal deficit, never broke the surface during the 102nd Congress. There was no appetite for a serious review of entitlement programs during an election year, and 1991 was, well, the year before an election year. Rather than admit that the deficit is hampering the most basic policymaking functions of the federal government, politicians blamed their inertia on "the other party." Sad to say that it has taken a Ross Perot to lay the truth on the line _ now that Congress has packed up and gone home.

Scandal. Voters can get more action next time, but only by focusing squarely on the issues. The Clarence Thomas confirmation circus, for instance, was pretty much of a loss for all sides. The House bank scandal was a juicy tidbit _ but hardly new and even less worthy of the attention it received. Precious months were lost as House members became so occupied with defending themselves that they couldn't get any work done. The results? A few incumbents won't be running again. Had similar righteous indignation been devoted to, say, overriding Bush's veto of the campaign finance bill, the goal of cleaning up Congress would have been much better served.

The most tragic example of all may prove to be the tax relief and urban aid bill, an odd mixture that includes both relief from luxury taxes on the rich and $1.1-billion in desperately needed assistance for the cities. President Bush has advocated "enterprise zones," also addressed in the bill, but his no-new-taxes pledge will likely prompt a veto of the package.

Next month, voters will exercise their opportunity to realign the players and reset the nation's goals. In the few weeks that remain, they should demand that candidates provide the answers needed to make truly informed choices.