WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When I was in grade school, I remember that first chore every school year, right after Labor Day. It was on the chalk board when we walked into English class and went something like this: "Write a 750-word essay on how you spent your summer vacation and your goals for the year ahead." If I remember correctly, my teachers billed this little ritual as an exercise in "creative writing." It's a good thing that the 535 members of Congress returning to Washington this week from their five-week summer hiatus don't have such an assignment.
Imagine the challenge of depicting fishing trips, lobbyist-subsidized junkets and golf outings as a "District Work Period." Consider how creative they have to be to portray dialing for dollars as a "listening session with constituents." Envision the task of describing a trip to the beach as a "Congressional Inquiry Into Shark Attacks."
There are of course, notable exceptions. We do know what some congressmen were doing during part of the recess. A good number of them sent off one of the best friends a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine ever had: Republican Rep. Floyd Spence of South Carolina, who died on Aug. 16.
Sen. Jesse Helms, D-N.C., took vacation time to announce that this will be his last term. Arkansas Rep. Asa Hutchinson took leave of his colleagues to become the top cop at the Drug Enforcement Administration. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., used her holiday to write notes to the heads of all seven U.S. airlines threatening the wrath of Congress if they don't limit passengers to a two-drink maximum on domestic flights to curb what she calls "air rage." And of course, Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif., used his recess to commit ritual seppuku on television.
But now contemplate how these tanned, rested and ready paragons of politics would complete the second part of the writing assignment, their "goals for the year ahead." Some of them have already tipped their hand -- and it's not a pretty picture.
House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., is doing all he can to lay the blame for a slipping U.S. economy on the "excessive Bush tax cut." Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., is telling the American people that "the Bush tax cuts have made it necessary to dip into Social Security reserves." Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., hopes we all will come to realize that the budget surplus has evaporated and how "difficult it will be to fully fund the administration's increase in defense spending, given the $1.35 trillion tax cut."
Is there a theme here? Are they copying from each other's essays? Perhaps they all went camping over the recess with Democrat National Committee Chairman, Terry McAuliffe, who's autumn mantra is, "George Bush ate the surplus and that's bad for the economy." Maybe they think the "back to school essay" is supposed to be fiction. Or is it possible that the potentates of the Potomac simply find playing politics easier than doing something.
It's not as though there isn't a lot to be done once Congress gets back to town. The Middle East is a powder keg -- but the President's $18.4 billion Defense Supplemental is being held up on the congressional runway while the troops are out of bullets. The House has passed the American Service Members Protection Act to defend U.S. military personnel from political prosecutions by the United Nations International Criminal Court, but the Senate is holding the measure in leg irons.
Gasoline prices are still too high and the administration's energy bill that would reduce America's dependence on foreign oil is in neutral. The kids are back in school, but the education reform bill has yet to be graded. Meanwhile, Tom Daschle's Senate is sitting on more than 160 executive branch and judicial nominees in a confirmation process that is slower than Chinese water torture.
Republican political operatives are privately gleeful that if this behavior continues, George Bush will have a great campaign slogan for the 2002 mid-term elections: "Give me a Congress that will work!" Another GOP strategist told me: "The Gephardt-Daschle Democrats don't have any new ideas. All they do is say, 'No.' They are paralyzed like deer in the headlights. When the American people hear the word 'Democrat' they see the faces of Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy and Gary Condit."
All true. And that may be good for campaign consultants who have their sights set on the next election. But there are, as indicated by the lengthy litany of languishing legislation above, some things that need to get done in Washington. And when Congress strolls back into town this week they should "kwitcherbellyachin" and get to work. Hopefully, that's not asking too much. After all, the next "District Work Period" is scheduled for Oct. 6. And this one only lasts until the end of the year.