GOVERNMENT IN GRIDLOCK Neither lawmakers nor public knows how to get things going


WASHINGTON -- More bad news from the gridlocked government: The nation's lawmakers are as pessimistic as the public about getting things moving again.

They're critical of themselves and the president but short on solutions. Like many of their angry constituents, they seem to be waiting for somebody to show them the way.

"I think great leadership would bring us out of it," says veteran Rep. Thomas J. Downey, a New York Democrat. "Unfortunately, we don't appear to have any great leaders."

The disillusionment in Washington comes at a time when the rest of the world wants to emulate the United States.

"Our system has never been more in vogue to be copied. At the very same time, we have developed such enormous self-doubt," observes Rep. Jim Leach, an Iowa Republican.

Some legislators hope elections this year will end the stalemate by bringing fresh blood into Congress and perhaps the White House. But merely changing the cast of characters won't end one of the underlying problems: Gridlock in government mirrors paralyzing conflicts within society about national goals and the government's role.

What is needed, say a growing number of Congress members, is franker dialogue between politicians and the public about the nation's problems. That requires the critical leadership ingredient so lacking today: courage.

"Members of Congress have tried to abdicate their responsibility to a great degree during the decade of the '80s and into the '90s," says Rep. Mike Synar, a Democrat from Oklahoma. "They have tried to avoid making tough votes that will then be reflected in either a 30-second commercial or a voting record that will not sit favorably with groups back home."

So gridlock continues. If Republicans and Democrats agree on anything, it is that they cannot recall another impasse that has been as protracted and bitter.

"Now is the worst time I've seen," says Rep. William S. Broomfield, a Michigan Republican who has been in office since the Eisenhower administration.

"On any of the major challenges facing us, it's hard to see any movement except movement in the wrong direction," says Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, "whether we're talking about the fiscal situation of the country or the health care system or the education system or the infrastructure."

Demoralized, and in some cases tainted by the House bank scandal, many members of Congress are giving up: 49 have voluntarily retired, a post-World War II record.

Public duty

The crisis in government is driving an increasing number of legislators to demand more accountability from the public as well as themselves. They say leadership is a two-way street: If citizens are to expect it, they must participate more fully in the political process.

"They seem more engaged now with Ross Perot and with David Duke and with 'outsiders' than they've ever been involved with the people they've sent here," Mr. Synar says. "During the decade of the '80s . . . I think every member of the [House] and Senate will tell you, you couldn't find a crowd to have a town meeting with, you couldn't get people to write their congressman and give him their opinion."

A frequent complaint is that the public sends Washington a "mixed message": demanding services while refusing to pay more taxes or to cut costly entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security.

"The American people really believe there's a free lunch," says Sen. Warren B. Rudman, Republican of New Hampshire who is retiring after devoting much of his Senate career to a futile fight against rising deficits.

"More than half the American people believe the budget can be (( balanced by eliminating fraud, waste and abuse. . . . And we allow them to believe that. And the media [don't] take us to task for it."

But the "mixed message" might be a symptom of deeper conflicts in society.

Gary C. Jacobson, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, says the public is composed of "lots of different subgroups that care very much about some aspects of public policy" but that don't form a cohesive whole. This, in turn, creates divisions in government.

"Congress has a terrible time reaching agreement within itself and [with] the White House as well because public preferences on major issues are so conflicting and sometimes self-conflicting," Mr. Jacobson says.

The parties also are divided into factions. President Bush stumbled over a Republican fault line in 1990 when he reached a tax-raising budget agreement with congressional Democrats that infuriated many in his party and led to Patrick J. Buchanan's presidential candidacy.

"I think if you had to take a long view of it, we are working ourselves through a difficult time, both in the country and in the institutions of government," says Richard Fenno, a University of Rochester political scientist.

"Perhaps as the economy picks up and the world settles down we'll do a little better," he says. "But I believe the essential problem is the national leadership -- Congress and the president -- has to bite some bullets so our children and grandchildren won't have to suffer from the gridlock."

Who should bite first? Not me, says Congress. Not me, says the president.

The public has concluded that the two are co-conspirators. In a recent national survey, 73 percent of Americans agreed that "the entire political system is broken," according to GOP pollster Linda DiVall.

Democrats hold Mr. Bush primarily responsible for gridlock. And though many fought President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, they now say he was easier to work with than Mr. Bush, who has vetoed 28 bills without getting many of his own passed. Unlike Mr. Reagan, Mr. Bush was elected without the specific agenda )) that enabled his predecessor to galvanize public and congressional support for increased defense spending and domestic cuts.

Though Democrats criticize the president, they insist that Congress isn't able to lead, either -- a confession unlikely to inspire public confidence.

"The Congress can't lead," says Sen. Tim Wirth, a Democrat from Colorado. "The Congress is a collection of 535 free agents. And it's set up to be that way."

But Mr. Leach, the Iowa Republican, terms that "a denial of

individual responsibility."

"It's self-evident that a stronger presidential leadership will have a greater chance of congressional followership," he says. "But the inverse is also true. Congress has become a rudderless parochial body."

A question of courage

The criticism that Congress lacks discipline and direction has bipartisan support, in and out of Congress.

"I would say Congress has sort of democratized itself into an incapacity to act with a proliferation of subcommittees and overlapping committees," says Stuart E. Eizenstat, who was President Jimmy Carter's domestic policy chief.

But even if Congress overhauls the committee structure and reduces the power of special interest groups with campaign finance reform, some lawmakers doubt whether internal changes will embolden leadership.

"You're still going to have to cast that lousy vote that people aren't going to like," says Mr. Rudman, for whom the real issue is guts.

He believes that the Senate is not what it once was. "We have lost a lot of very, very good people in the last 10 or 12 years here," he says, mentioning former Sens. Howard Baker of Tennessee and Lawton M. Chiles Jr., now governor of Florida.

On the House side, Mr. Leach says, "We've got some major quality breakdowns, with some people being very good at the professional art of getting elected and not so good at the art of representation."

What impact the elections will have is anyone's guess.

"It will bring change," says Rep. Dennis E. Eckart, an Ohio Democrat. "Whether it is change for the better or worse is something we'll have to find out much later. I've said that 125 new people here can't be all bad. But people shouldn't believe, though, that simply scrambling the eggs will get rid of the cholesterol."

Now what?

No question the incumbents are frustrated. Some are throwing up their hands, in effect, saying the impetus for change must come from outside Washington or from a fundamental change in the system.

Mr. Synar exhorts constituents "to hit the streets, just like they did in Moscow."

Mr. Rudman hopes to stir action by working with former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas to create an organization that focuses public attention on issues like the deficit.

"It would be interesting if we can do something from the outside to make it easier on people on the inside to do things," Mr. Rudman says. "Then the votes won't be so tough."

Rep. Andy Ireland, a Florida Republican in his 16th year in Congress, puts his faith in term limits, which many citizens support. He says the current system discourages talented people from running because they know that they'll have to wait years to achieve enough seniority to wield power.

"We've got to get where people get into these positions because they're skilled, not because they have splinters in their seat," he says.

But there's another school of thought that says things aren't as rotten in Washington as they seem.

Take a long view of history -- and the Constitution -- before mucking with the institutions of government, urges Richard P. Nathan, provost of the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs at the State University of New York at Albany. Occasional gridlock is part of the system, he says.

"I feel we have to be more tolerant, and more understanding of what free government is all about," Mr. Nathan says. "Everyone can get an oar in and it's really hard to row a boat when you've got that kind of a system. And so be it."

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