Wackiness in Washington


Somehow, in the fleeting hours between Senate Republican leader Bob Dole's complaint that 67 Democratic amendments were impeding passage of stiffer anti-terrorist legislation and President Clinton's implicit confession that he was right, the number of proposed Democratic changes was more than cut on half. This maneuver tells us once again which party is really in charge in Washington. It also exposes the disarray in Democratic ranks.

Many loyal Democratic legislators, when speaking privately, do not hesitate to convey their unhappiness with the Clinton White House and their own legislative leadership. Their frustration shows in constructive ways, as when they propose initiatives to fill a presidential leadership vacuum, and in destructive ways, when they seek to load up pending GOP bills to make a political statement.

One may say this is just part of the general wackiness that characterizes the Clinton-Gingrich era. Usually a president gives his name, and his name alone, to his years in power. But with Speaker Newt Gingrich's Republican revolution rolling down a single track in the House of Representatives, and with Mr. Clinton's Democrats shunting off to the sidings in all directions, this is a period that historians may describe as a bit odd.

It is that. When Congress took a break for Memorial Day, there had been 354 roll calls in the House and 232 in the Senate. That compares to 198 roll calls in the House and 133 in the Senate for the like period of 1993, to about 100 roll calls in each chamber in 1991 and less than 70 in 1989.

Consider the import of this escalation. Individual members are under drumbeat pressure to record themselves, day after day, on more issues than they can track. Each vote, they know, is a potential booby-trap come election time. And they are faced by the weird contrast of lock-step discipline among Republicans, especially in the House, and almost total anarchy in Democratic ranks. From such a situation, the country is supposed to be served with coherent and sensible legislation? We wonder.

The anti-terrorism bill that was the subject of Senator Dole's outburst is a case in point. Important issues are at stake.

Should the government have power to conduct "roving wiretaps" against suspected terrorists? Should the FBI be able to infiltrate right-wing militia groups as it did during J. Edgar Hoover days against leftists? Should identifying markers be added to potential explosive material for later identification? Should the military be authorized to combat biological and chemical terrorism as it is now the case with nuclear terrorism? These are legitimate questions, especially as the security of individual citizens is threatened by the advanced technology now available to would-be terrorists.

After the Oklahoma tragedy, this newspaper said there is a good case for getting tougher with terrorism. That remains our position, but the handling of pending legislation is hardly a basis for confidence.

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