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A Wake-Up Call for American Voters


The Elephant

Michael J. Ring

One half-century ago this fall, President Harry S. Truman was crossing the nation, visiting cities and towns large and small, hammering home to the American voters a simple reason why the people should return the Democrats to power in 1948. He blasted the "do-nothing" Republican Congress of that year, which failed to pass any major pieces of legislation in a special session called by Truman. The President won over Americans with his pledges for a "Fair Deal" in employment, housing, and health, and Truman went on to win one of the greatest upsets in presidential history.

Fifty years later, we are faced with another Republican Congress. The 105th Congress, however, makes the 80th which so irked Truman look like a model of efficiency. This Congress, according to a recent article in the Boston Globe, was accustomed to three-day work weeks. It met for fewer work days than any other Congress in recent memory, losing five weeks' worth of legislative days compared to the average of recent Congresses. President Clinton had signed, as of last week, only 241 bills into law during this Congress. The average for the last three decades is well over 600.

It's apparent that we are dealing with a second "do-nothing" Republican Congress. This body is more country club than legislative forum. Much as it was fifty years ago, the majority party shows no interest in helping the American people or tending to their needs. The inaction of this Congress and its disregard for the American people insults every man, woman, and child in this nation.

The American people demanded tobacco reform legislation. They were tired of seeing their children targeted by tobacco companies and sick of the web of lies and falsehoods propagated for so long by cigarette manufacturers. Good and conscientious representatives of both parties came forward and rallied behind a bill sponsored by Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) that accomplishes these important goals of high public priority. Instead of yielding to the public will and following the wise counsel of their colleagues, the Republican leadership spun a tangle of filibusters and procedural roadblocks, killing the bill. The 105th Congress, instead of reaching a national tobacco settlement, chose to do nothing.

The American people demanded campaign finance reform. They were sick and tired of seeing how money controlled the political process. They wanted an end to unregulated, "soft money" contributions to political parties. The American people desired a level and fair campaign system. Good and conscientious representatives of both parties advanced bills to accomplish these goals. The do-nothing leadership of the House tried to squash the movement, but over the leadership's objections the House passed a campaign finance bill. In the Senate a majority of senators expressed their desire to see this bill passed and sent to an eager president for enactment into law. The do-nothing Republican leadership in the Senate, however, turned to the usual dirty tricks of parliamentary tactics to kill the bill and subvert the will of the American people. Instead of rectifying the many problems in our campaign finance system, the 105th Congress chose to do nothing.

The American people demanded health care reform. They were sick and tired of seeing health maintenance organizations dictate their health care options and force their health care choices. They wanted a patient's Bill of Rights, an opportunity to express their grievances to a third party, and a chance to sue their health care providers to obtain the treatment they needed and deserved. Good and conscientious representatives, led by Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), advanced proposals which would grant these rights to Americans. The response of the Republicans was to squash these bills and amendments. The 105th Congress, instead of delivering to Americans the health care reform they dearly want and need, chose to do nothing.

The American people demanded an increase in the minimum wage. They were sick and tired of seeing working families struggle to make ends meet through low-paying jobs. They realized any person working full-time should be entitled to a living wage, something which the current, shockingly low minimum wage does not bestow. Good and conscientious representatives, led by Senator Kennedy and Representative David Bonior (D-Mich.) rallied behind a bill to extend this economic protection to millions of American workers. The Republican leadership nixed these proposals. Rather than take steps to ensure every working American was entitled to a fair and decent living wage, the 105th Congress chose to do nothing.

We shouldn't complain too deeply about the "do-nothing" Republican Congress. Better they do nothing than advance their own harmful agenda. Better they sit idly twiddling their thumbs than push through tax breaks for the wealthy. Better they take extended holidays than dismantle America's environmental protection laws. Better they enjoy the country club atmosphere than declare war on the values of tolerance and openness in American culture.

Fifty years ago the American voters knew the answer to the dilemma of their "do-nothing" Republican Congress. Defying the political bookmakers, they returned Truman to the White House so that he could give the Congress hell for four more years.

Unfortunately Bill Clinton is no Harry Truman. Given his behavior, it's more likely he's going to hell than giving others hell. Though we may not have a leader with the courage and persuasive power of Truman to guide us, we all still have a vote. We should have the wisdom and ability for ourselves to make these observations and determinations regarding the inactivity of Congress, and we should demand that our representatives work hard for us rather than hardly work. We should see they enact the platform we desire. We should choose rightly between a Democratic Congress and a do-nothing Congress.