The "do-nothing Congress" is dead. Long live the "do-nothing Congress." Such should be the proclamation upon the ascension of Democrats to control of Congress, with Nancy Pelosi breaking what she calls the "marble ceiling" to become speaker of the House.
The Republican congressional majority foundered on its inability to address important issues during the past two years, so Democrats are set to fill the breach with an energetic burst of pretending to address important issues. This effort is so urgent that they promise to do it in 100 business hours, trumping Newt Gingrich's first 100 days of legislative action in 1995.
If Democrats want to be faster than Gingrich, they don't want to be as grandiose. This is shrewd. Gingrich mistakenly thought he could govern the country from the speaker's chair and disastrously overreached as a consequence. Nancy Pelosi's only early overreaching will be exhausting all of her party's popular, largely symbolic measures in a matter of days. What will Democrats do to fill the countless other hours before their term is done?
Some of the Democrats' internal reforms are worthy, especially curtailing privately funded travel and enhancing the transparency of earmarks. It is telling that the late GOP congressional majority couldn't manage even these relatively tepid reforms, since some members of its leadership would have been practically immobile without a corporate jet.
But all rules have their loopholes and the ultimate ethics measure is rigorous self-policing. Watch Pelosi ally Rep. John Murtha. If his friends continue to fatten themselves on federal money steered their way by Murtha and return the favor with campaign contributions, nothing will have changed in Congress except the party affiliation of the self-interested barons running the place. Prediction: They will.
The Democratic substance is vanishingly thin. They will raise the minimum wage, but 29 states already have a minimum wage that's higher than the federal rate. The effect of the hike mainly will be to give a small boost to the wage of teenagers working summers or after school. FDR would yawn.
On prescription drugs, Democrats promised to have the government negotiate for lower drug prices. But the case for major overhaul of the Medicare prescription-drug program has weakened, as the program has proven reasonably popular with seniors and cheaper than expected. Democrats simply might give the Bush administration the authority to negotiate lower prices, which would be meaningless because the administration opposes such negotiations as de facto price controls.
Democrats already have abandoned their promise to immediately implement all the remaining recommendations of the 9/11 Commission because some would require solving nettlesome jurisdictional issues in Congress. They will pass federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, but might not be able to override a presidential veto. They want to cut interest rates on student loans, but that can be expensive at a time when they also want to impose pay-as-you-go rules mandating that new spending has to be paid for with tax increases or spending cuts.
An important political consequence of the Democratic takeover is that it liberates Republicans from the compulsion they had felt to abandon their principles in order to try to protect their majority. As Nancy Pelosi took the speaker's gavel, President Bush sounded the sort of clarion calls on fiscal responsibility --endorsing a balanced budget in five years -- and earmark reform that he never did when free-spending, earmarking Republicans controlled the Hill. He hopes to box in Democrats with their own anti-deficit rhetoric and force them either to forgo major new spending or embrace politically perilous tax increases.
This is the kind of choice Democrats were able to avoid in November when they became a default majority -- a majority elected not for what it stood for, but for what it was not. Eventually, Democrats will have to move beyond their default position if they want a record of substantive accomplishment after the pageantry and symbolism of the 100 hours have passed.