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A threat to the status quo

So you thought gridlock is what you get when voters put a Republican in the White House and give Democrats control of the Congress. Now you know better. Gridlock is what you get when there is a threat to the status quo in Washington. It has less to do with partisanship than with a system that is geared toward inaction.

Bill Clinton promised voters that his election as president would end the gridlock in Washington. He was elected, and now he is struggling to keep his major legislative initiatives from being mangled not only by Republicans but by Democrats and many of the same interest groups that supported his campaign.

Democrats could have warned Clinton that it would take more than one-party government to break the gridlock. They could have told him that while a president must consider the national interest, members of Congress represent narrow economic and political interests. They could have told him that most lawmakers don't feel beholden to a president as much as they do to the special interests that contribute big money to their campaigns. They could have told him all this and more, but I guess they decided to let him learn all of this the hard way.

The gruff-talking chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Dan Rostenkowski, put it bluntly in an interview with the Washington Post: "There are too damn many people here in both parties who are a helluva lot more comfortable with the status quo. Clinton ran on change and the public embraced it. .


. Is Congress rejecting change? You're damned right it is. So who's at fault?"

Is it a Congress hog-tied by special interests and provincial priorities? A president who doesn't have the stomach for taking on Congress? Lobbyists who put the interests of their clients ahead of the national interest? A press corps that nit-picks the president and creates distractions?

The answer is all of the above, some more than others.

Certainly President Clinton deserves his share of the blame for being too eager to accommodate and too quick to retreat. He would rather switch than fight. No one in Washington fears Clinton. Even generals publicly ridicule their commander in chief.

Members of Congress early on pegged him as a president who would do almost anything to avoid conflict and confrontation. So when Western senators objected to Clinton's proposal to charge higher fees for grazing, timber-cutting and mining on federal lands, they were amazed how quickly the president gave in.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., was among a group of Western lawmakers who went to the White House and asked if there was some way to ease the financial burden the higher fees would impose on their region. "We did not have a specific proposal and lo and behold, about a week later, the White House just announced it was taking those three (provisions) out of the budget, which surprised me," Baucus told the Post. "All the time we were saying we were just looking for resolution, we didn't want to eliminate all those things."

Senate Republicans filibustered the president's economic stimulus package to death, but they are not Clinton's biggest problem on Capitol Hill. The president's program has suffered far more political damage from members of his own party. The Democrats, not the Republicans, killed the president's broad-based energy tax and altered his deficit-reduction program in other ways that will be difficult for the White House and liberal lawmakers to accept.

To get his deficit-reduction plan through the House, Clinton gave exemptions to his Btu tax to just about any group that applied political pressure _ West Virginia coal, the aluminum industry, farming interests, heating oil distributors, utility companies, to name a few.

By the time the legislation arrived in the Senate, oil-state senators led by David Boren of Oklahoma went for broke. They demanded that the Btu tax be stripped from the package. Clinton took a hands-off posture and allowed the Senate Finance Committee to write its own version.

The energy tax, which Clinton had counted on to raise $70-billion toward his $500-billion deficit reduction plan, was killed. To make up for the loss in revenue, Senate Democrats agreed to a 4.3-cents-a-gallon tax increase on gasoline, worth $24-billion over five years. They also cut Medicare, food stamps and the tax-credit for low-paid workers.

Liberal lawmakers were furious and vowed to fight the cuts in social spending when differences between the House and Senate versions are ironed out in conference committee. If the money is not restored, they threatened to vote against final passage.

As for Clinton, he said he was "drawing the line" on further compromise. He said Congress had made "remarkable progress" on his economic plan, although he is telling liberals objectionable provisions will be revised in conference.

We'll see. It will be his last chance to shape what is likely to be the most important piece of legislation he sends to Capitol Hill. It is his credibility as a deficit-cutter that is at stake. He needs to come out of this one with his political authority renewed, not diminished, if he is going to prevail on health care reform against the powerful interests arrayed against him.

Philip Gailey is editor of editorials of the Times.