Testy Congress finds politics in many a bill
Legislating in a political year is rarely easy, and as Congress returns from Memorial Day parades back home, signs point to rougher roads ahead. Politics is delaying even the most prosaic of bills - bankruptcy court reform - and is flashing warning lights on immigration reform. And House members recently had a partisan row before a live television audience in a theatrical event that the Washington Post assigned to its television critic and dubbed ''As the Hill Turns.''
''Something's snapped around here,'' says Rep. Leon E. Panetta of the partisan tensions in the House. The California Democrat spreads the blame around.
''A group on the Republican side decided to draw the line,'' he says of a band of confrontation-prone Republicans who stage regular assaults on liberal Democrats, denouncing them by name as ''radicals'' who are soft on communism.
Democrats are also causing confrontation, according to Representative Panetta. ''They are not about to give (ground to) the President,'' he says. ''Once those lines are drawn, I think we lose control.''
''I've never seen it as bad as this year,'' says the Californian, who calls for returning to ''a more bipartisan'' spirit.
Tensions erupted publicly earlier this month when Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts angrily denounced Republican Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia for his almost daily verbal attacks on Democrats following the regular legislative business in the House chamber. The House speaker also ordered the House TV cameras to pan the chamber during those after-hours speeches to show it almost empty.
But the political year's wrangling has had effects beyond camera angles.
As the House considered a defense authorization bill last week, the debate over spending priorities and weaponry turned into a dispute over the President's authority to send troops to Central America. Democrats passed an amendment to restrict the President, and conservative Republicans countered by proposing an amendment to strengthen his power.
Such proposals are no more than symbolic. But no matter. The amendments required recorded votes that can be useful during campaigns.
Meanwhile, Congress has yet to repair the nation's bankruptcy courts, even though the US Supreme Court two years ago ordered Congress to correct unconstitutional aspects of the system. The reform is stymied over a provision that House Democrats added to protect union contracts when businesses claim bankruptcy. The Republican Senate leadership is trying to sidestep the labor issue, which is certain to antagonize either unions or the business community.
No less a pleasing political choice is immigration reform, which has passed the Senate and been guaranteed action on the House floor by Speaker O'Neill. But with elections approaching, many Democrats are getting cold feet.
Even presidential candidate Walter F. Mondale has put his oar into the congressional scheduling of the immigration bill. After he made a plea to O'Neill, the speaker agreed to delay the bill until after the California presidential primary next week.
California Democrats in the House see the proposed immigration bill making enemies on every side. ''Most Hispanics see the bill as onerous,'' says a Hispanic member of the delegation, Rep. Esteban E. Torres. Many would be so turned off toward the Democratic Party that ''they may not vote at all,'' he warns.
Rep. Vic Fazio, another California Democrat, hears opposition not only from ethnic groups but from farmers who want the influx of temporary foreign labor, as well as from border-state governments, whose ''coffers are going to be strained'' by thousands of alien residents suddenly legalized by the amnesty provisions in the reform bill.
''No matter how you vote, you're just going to get people angry,'' says Panetta.
But Representative Fazio also sees political liability in taking no action on immigration. Members would then ''run headlong into a buzzsaw,'' he says, because the voters would say, ''You don't have the courage to deal with this.''