Is flag burning more vital than ethics reform?
At 4:35 a.m. last Saturday, Sen. Bill Frist performed his last act as majority leader. To the handful of members still there, he announced the adjournment of the 109th Congress "sine die" – that is, forever – leaving behind the most unproductive session in recent history. Congress has been in session only 103 days this year, compared with 110 for President Truman's "do-nothing Congress."
It did not perform its most basic constitutional duty – to vote the appropriations necessary to run the government. Of 11 departmental appropriations, it had managed to pass only two – defense and homeland security. The rest of the government was left to limp along on a stopgap resolution that was constantly in danger of expiring – the next deadline is Feb. 15.
In its last throes, the 109th did manage to pass legislation establishing permanent trade relations with Vietnam and a nuclear trade pact with India. And, yes, it renewed a cluster of expiring tax breaks. The Democrats, flexing their pending muscle, secured a bill blocking an automatic pay raise for Congress until next year, until after a vote to increase the minimum wage.
What this Congress did not do is more striking than what this Congress did. It took no action on real immigration reform. It did not enact a budget. It produced no basic reform in Social Security or Medicare.
It did, however, have spirited debates on matters such as flag burning, gay marriage, and Terry Shiavo's feeding tube, an issue that seemed to absorb Senator Frist.
What Congress also left undone was any serious effort at ethics reform. What we got instead was retiring speaker Dennis Hastert's swan song, saying, "We promised to protect this nation from further attack and, by grace of God and with the leadership of President Bush, we have been successful."
This could also be called the Mark Foley Congress – a leadership that for years did nothing about a Congressman who made e-mail advances to adolescent pages. Mr. Foley resigned. The House ethics committee said members of Congress were negligent about protecting the pages. But it said no rules had been violated.
It may be that Congress has become, like the title of a recent book by scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, "The Broken Branch."
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.