- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 31, 2006

There has been a lot of speculation about what will happen when Democrats take control of Congress this month, but the likely answer may well be “not much.”

Yes, we will have a divided government again. But for those of us who believe in our constitutional system of checks and balances against an all-powerful central government, that is not a bad thing. Democrats will no doubt conduct a string of politically motivated investigations into the Bush administration. But even that kind of adversarial oversight can be healthy if it shines some light on dark places in need of a housecleaning.

Besides, no one expects the administration or the Republicans to lie down and be rolled by a bunch of Democratic committee chairmen. They know how to fight back, and no doubt will do so with gusto.

As for a massive change in programs and policies, an overhaul of the insanely complex tax code, Social Security reform or fixing whatever your issue may be don’t hold your breath.

To be sure, House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi’s 100 hours of nonstop votes on the Democrats’ campaign agenda will look and sound like the House majority is getting things done: new restrictions on lobbyists, raising the minimum wage to $7.25, higher taxes on the oil and gas industry, and enacting the remaining recommendations of the September 11 Commission, among other things.

But whether most or all of these proposals make it through the maze of legislative hoops and hurdles the Founding Fathers created to keep bad ideas from becoming law remains to be seen. There has already been some backpedaling on Democrats’ campaign promises.

One of the biggest recommendations made by the bipartisan September 11 Commission was to reform the dangerously disorganized thicket of congressional panels in charge of the intelligence agencies. The commission said this reform was critical to safeguarding our country from another terrorist attack.

“Of all our recommendations, strengthening congressional oversight may be among the most difficult and important. So long as oversight is governed by current congressional rules and resolutions, we believe the American people will not get the security they want and need,” the panel said in its report.

Implementing all of the commission’s September 11 proposals (the administration accomplished most of them) was the Democrats’ campaign mantra in last year’s elections. But reorganizing the raft of intelligence committees and subcommittees threatened the power of too many influential committee chairmen who feared consolidations would intrude into their turf. So Pelosi Democrats have decided not to carry out this key reform.

And what about Mrs. Pelosi’s promise to open up the legislative process to allow “open, full and fair debate” that would give the Republican minority the right to offer alternative provisions and a substitute bill?

It turns out the Democrats have backed off this one, too. Last month, Mrs. Pelosi told Republicans they would get one chance to amend a bill curbing oil and gas subsidies. Does that mean they could offer their own substitute bill? Nope. They would be allowed to offer a motion to send the measure back to committee a difficult, if not impossible, procedural maneuver that is far from what she originally promised.

But after the 100 hours of severely limited parliamentary procedures has played out, what then? That’s where prospects look bleak. House-passed legislation goes over to the Senate, known in some disgruntled circles on Capitol Hill as “the black hole,” or “the roach motel,” where numerous bills go in but few come out.

The Senate’s rules, dominated by unanimous-consent agreements, are far different from the House. One senator can put a hold on a bill for just about any reason or block a measure from a vote for an almost indefinite period.

Even on those bills that may make it to the floor, one senator or a handful of senators can demand that the majority, if there is one, must come up with a supermajority of 60 votes to end a filibuster and proceed to full and formal consideration.

Even if you pass the Senate version, the obstacles don’t end. It must be sent to a House-Senate conference where a group of appointed lawmakers negotiate to iron out differences. Often, as was the case with last year’s competing illegal immigration bills, one chamber (in this case, the House) can refuse to go to conference, dooming any further action.

Many, if not most, bills coming out of conferences are voted on, but they can run into the same obstacles they had to clear in the first go-round.

All these legislative, procedural and parliamentary hurdles are hard enough to overcome. In a narrowly divided, deeply polarized House and Senate, as the 110th Democratic Congress will be, compromises will be doubly difficult to achieve.

The ball is now in the Democrats’ court to prove they can govern, but the partisan signals coming out of Nancy Pelosi’s war room suggest that little, if anything, is likely to get done.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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