Expect a contentious 110th Congress

The Baltimore Sun

What can we expect from the next Congress?

Despite the lack of a public blueprint comparable to Newt Gingrich's 1994 "Contract with America," there are some reliable signals. It promises to be a dramatic environment characterized by more heat than light, one in which politics consistently trumps policy.

Don't bet on bipartisan agreements to slash the deficit or reform Medicare.

Let's assume that the conventional wisdom is correct: The House will have a modest Democratic majority and the Senate will be nearly evenly balanced. What happens?

The first act will be a lame-duck session that will be nasty, brutish and short. The White House and outgoing committee chairs will want to make as many big budget decisions as possible before Democrats assume power. But the issues are contentious. That's why they weren't decided earlier. And many members serving their final days will be more interested in finding their next job or playing the blame game.

Defeat may inevitably be an orphan, but that won't stop Republicans from trying to assign paternity.

The Democrats, meanwhile, have no incentive to cooperate. Carryover issues will top the agenda when they take control next year.

When the new Congress convenes, the House will be slightly more liberal despite the fact that both the Democratic and Republican caucuses will be more conservative than they are now. That's because the Democrats have often picked up seats by running moderates. Many of the most vulnerable Republicans were among their moderates.

That means a fantasy feared by Republicans and anticipated by liberal Democrats about passage of a slew of new, big-government spending programs simply isn't going to happen.

Conservatives may find that reassuring, but liberal Democrats will find it frustrating. Both parties will be subjected to ongoing internal debates about whether the road to victory lies in being more ideological or less so.

But the House leadership, despite its liberal leanings, will present a centrist program reflecting the fact that the leaders lack the votes to win passage for anything more extreme.

That won't silence critics of the likely House speaker, Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, who will learn that she values leadership more than liberalism.

As long as their majority is narrow and the Republicans control the White House, the Democrats can't govern and probably won't be foolish enough to try.

The Democrats most interested in winning the White House share an interest in making this clear. They sense the White House is on the ropes. They want to set it up for a knockout punch in 2008. Their priority is ending Republican rule, not moderating it.

That means a lot of oversight to document and publicize flaws in current policy, but little action to fix them. Conduct of the war is an obvious starting point, but domestic issues will claim some of the spotlight. For various reasons, it makes sense for the Democrats to fan the backlash building against growing federal involvement in public education.

As with taxes and deficits, it is easier to focus on the problem than win agreement on solutions. That's someone else's responsibility. The Democrats will regularly remind us that the president proposes and the Congress disposes.

That doesn't mean Congress will be passive. In fact, it will pull itself together to pass some provocative legislation - introducing bidding for the Medicare drugs or winding things down in Iraq are two possibilities - that the White House will veto.

In the absence of a unifying emergency that doesn't now exist, neither side has any incentive to compromise. Each side thinks it can win by making the other seem impotent, irrelevant or irresponsible.

Whatever happens on Election Day, there's little reason to anticipate an era of good feeling, and much to suggest a modest legislative record during the next two years.

Jim Jaffe, who writes about politics and domestic policy, worked for several House Democrats when they were in the majority. His e-mail is jimjaf@gmail.com.

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