November 21, 2000

November 21, 2000 | Commentary on Political Thought

A "Do-Something" Congress

You've no doubt heard by now what political pundits on both sides of the ideological aisle are saying about the difficulties our new president will face in getting anything done with a closely divided Congress. Can't expect anything substantive out of this bunch, right?

Not so fast. True, governing over the next few years will require more tact and finesse than we're accustomed to seeing in Washington. But lawmakers can rack up some real accomplishments-and keep gridlock and partisan rancor to a minimum-if they're willing to reconsider some of the bipartisan reform measures scuttled by President Clinton.

Take the campaign to eliminate the estate tax (more appropriately known as the "death tax"). It easily lent itself to demagogic charges that it would help only the "rich." Yet despite a torrent of class-warfare rhetoric, legislation that would have phased out the tax passed both houses of Congress by healthy margins. Support was so strong that Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., a long-time opponent of tax cuts of any kind, felt compelled to introduce legislation that would at least have reduced the tax.

The drive to kill the death tax was subsequently shot down by President Clinton, who insisted in his veto measure that it "failed the test of fairness." But there's no reason the campaign can't be revived. Ditto the effort to eliminate the "marriage penalty," that quirk of the tax code that forces millions of married couples to pay more than singles who simply live together. Legislation that would have eliminated the marriage penalty enjoyed strong bipartisan support but fell victim to the president's hyperactive veto pen.

Or take the continuing effort to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, a program that faces bankruptcy once the 77-million-strong baby boom generation retires. A bipartisan committee headed by Sen. John Breaux, D-La., and Rep. William Thomas, R-Calif., settled on a sensible solution: Reform Medicare along the lines of the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program (FEHBP), which covers members of Congress and their staffs, as well as 9 million federal employees, retirees and their dependents.

FEHBP enrollees pick from a variety of health insurance plans that compete for their business, and guess what? Every plan offers drug coverage, with most covering between 80 percent and 90 percent of drug costs. So why did the Breaux commission's proposal go nowhere? Because President Clinton pressured his appointees to vote against the plan, and the vote fell one short of the necessary supermajority needed to forward a formal recommendation to federal lawmakers. The next Congress can pick up where the commission left off.

Or what about efforts to finally deploy a national missile defense? Though the president signed legislation last year making it U.S. policy to deploy missile defenses "as soon as is technologically possible," he has refused to give the Pentagon the green light to build anything, including the land-based system he favors.

Now, The Heritage Foundation happens to support a sea- and space-based missile defense that would offer more effective protection against the kind of threats we can expect in the future. But a land-based system could serve as a back-up, and its deployment would at least signal to our enemies that we don't intend to remain sitting ducks.

This is only a sampling of what the next president can tackle, even with a closely divided Congress. Or have we endured one of the most sharply contested elections in history just to watch federal lawmakers sit on their hands?

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

Related Issues: Political Thought

Distributed nationally by the Associated Press