WASHINGTON -- There's been a lot of speculation about what is going to happen when Democrats take control of Congress this month, but the likely answer may well be "not much."
Yes, we will have a divided government again but for those of us who believe in our constitutional system of checks and balances against an all-powerful central government, that is not a bad thing. The Democrats will no doubt be conducting a string of politically motivated investigations into the Bush administration. But even that kind of adversarial oversight can be healthy if it shines some light on dark places in need of a housecleaning.
Besides, no one expects the administration or the Republicans to lie down and be rolled by a bunch of Democratic committee chairmen. They know how to fight back, and no doubt will do so with gusto.
As for a massive change in programs and policies, an overhaul of the insanely complex tax code, Social Security reform or fixing whatever your issue may be -- don't hold your breath.
To be sure, Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi's 100 hours of nonstop votes on the Democrats' campaign agenda will look and sound like the House majority is getting things done: new restrictions on lobbyists, raising the minimum wage to $7.25, higher taxes on the oil and gas industry, and enacting the remaining recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, among other things.
But whether most or all of these proposals make it through the maze of legislative hoops and hurdles that the Founding Fathers created to keep bad ideas from becoming law remains to be seen. There has already been some backpedaling among Democrats on their campaign promises.
One of the biggest recommendations made by the bipartisan 9/11 Commission was to reform the dangerously disorganized thicket of congressional panels in charge of the intelligence agencies. The commission said this reform was critical to safeguarding our country from another terrorist attack.
"Of all our recommendations, strengthening congressional oversight may be among the most difficult and important. So long as oversight is governed by current congressional rules and resolutions, we believe the American people will not get the security they want and need," the panel said in its report.
Implementing all of the commission's 9/11 proposals (the administration accomplished most of them) was the Democrats' campaign mantra in last year's elections. But reorganizing the raft of intelligence committees and subcommittees threatened the power of too many influential committee chairmen who feared that any consolidations would intrude into their turf. So the Pelosi Democrats have decided not to implement this key reform.
And what about Pelosi's promise to open up the legislative process to allow "open, full and fair debate" that would give the GOP minority the right to offer alternative provisions and a substitute bill.
It turns out the Democrats have backed off this one, too. Last month, she told Republicans they would get one chance to amend a bill curbing oil and gas subsidies. Does that mean they could offer their own substitute bill? Nope. They would be allowed to offer a motion to send the measure back to committee -- a difficult, if not impossible, procedural maneuver that is far from what she originally promised.
But after the 100 hours of severely limited parliamentary procedures has played out, what then? That's where prospects look bleak.
House-passed legislation goes over to the Senate, known in some disgruntled circles on Capitol Hill as "the black hole," or "the roach motel," where numerous bills go in but few come out.
The Senate's rules, dominated by unanimous-consent agreements, are far different from the House. One senator can put a hold on a bill for just about any reason or block a measure from a vote for an almost indefinite period. Even on those bills that may make it to the floor, one senator or a handful of senators can demand that the majority, if there is one, must come up with a supermajority of 60 votes to end a filibuster and proceed to full and formal consideration.
Even if you succeed in passing the Senate version, the obstacles don't end there. It must be sent to a House-Senate conference where a group of appointed lawmakers negotiate to iron out differences. Often, as was the case with last year's competing illegal immigration bills, one chamber (in this case, the House) can refuse to go to conference, dooming any further action. Many, if not most, bills coming out of conferences are voted on, but they can run into the same obstacles they had to clear in the first go-round. All of these legislative, procedural and parliamentary hurdles are hard enough to overcome. In a narrowly divided, deeply polarized House and Senate, as the 110th Democratic Congress will be, compromises will be doubly difficult to achieve.
The ball is now in the Democrats' court to prove they can govern, but the partisan signals coming out of Nancy Pelosi's war room suggest that little, if anything, is likely to get done.