Congress in crisis

Posted: Sep 20, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- Rigid partisanship and ideology in Congress have confronted a national demand for unity at a time of crisis. The lawmakers are doing well in seeking a common front against terrorism, but there have been exceptions that inhibited emergency help after Sept. 11. Immediate assistance for the nation's airlines to prevent a plunge at Monday's stock market opening was blocked by a single House member's objection. An attempt to give the government quick new authority to intercept terrorist communications was slowed down by senior members of Congress. Efforts to jump-start the economy with tax legislation this week were enmeshed in familiar ideological debates. This is not pure partisanship. Members of Congress are sincere when they join arms against a brutal foe. Yet, in the days immediately following the terrorist assault, the lawmakers could not completely shake the mood on Capitol Hill that has grown increasingly poisonous over the past 40 years. When terrorists chose to use hijacked passenger jets as their weapons, airline lobbyists immediately went to Congress for emergency financial aid. A bill was on the House floor last Thursday night to provide relief for the hard-pressed, vital industry. The measure was brought up under an expedited procedure that required unanimous consent. "I plead with any member who is thinking of objecting tonight ... ," said liberal Democratic Rep. Neal Abercrombie of Hawaii. "Please do not put at risk millions of jobs." The ensuing House debate at times sounded like business as usual. Two Republican old bulls with the same last name -- Appropriations Chairman Bill Young of Florida and Transportation Chairman Don Young of Alaska -- engaged in an arcane quarrel over authorizations vs. appropriations. The forceful Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas of California intervened to smooth over that quarrel and trim the bill so that aid to airlines would be limited to damage done by the government's reaction to Sept. 11. That wasn't good enough for Rep. Lloyd Doggett, whose Austin, Texas, constituency is one of the nation's most liberal. He typifies the saber-tongued House members of both parties who slash away in one-minute House floor speeches, and in the early hours of last Friday morning he showed that the terrorist assault had not changed him. "Before all the bodies are removed," he said, "there are those that are lining up here at the Capitol door ... asking that they receive some public subsidy, right out of the Social Security Fund." Doggett objected, in effect killing the bill. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt called senior Democrats into a secret session Sunday afternoon in quest of a bipartisan solution. But with the House adjourned until Thursday because of Jewish religious holidays, nothing could be done before the stock market reopened Monday. Airline stocks declined 32 percent, with some losing half their value as job layoffs and bankruptcies loomed. In the Senate Thursday night, Republican Sen. John Kyl of Arizona proposed an amendment to an appropriations bill to give the government long-sought power to "trap and trace" communications. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Democratic chairman of the Judiciary Committee, was not happy in a sharp conversation with Kyl. Indeed, he had not been happy about such recommendations last year issued by the National Terrorism Commission. With Leahy objecting to a roll call, the Kyl amendment (co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah) passed on a voice vote. Kyl had wanted to give anti-terrorist operations immediate help in fighting terrorism, but Congress lacked the will. The House Judiciary chairman, Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner, issued a statement Friday that the regular legislative procedure should be followed. That slow process started this week. Chairman Thomas has been trying to build a bipartisan tax stimulus including a cut in the capital gains tax to swell the value of American investment. Economist Gary Robbins estimates that a five-percentage cut in capital gains taxes would promptly mean a 500-point rise in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Would this be enough to eliminate ideological objections? Democratic members of Ways and Means told me Gephardt was interested but that his party's caucus would object. A crisis can change Congress only so much.