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A stillness in the Senate

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 10, 2007

With a feeling of sadness, one wonders what happened to the stately, United States Senate that built a reputation for solving major national problems such as civil rights. The year is half over, and what has the Senate done?

Where are great Senate leaders like Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirksen when we need them? The current Senate leaders, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, just don't measure up. This is a critical time for the nation, but the Congress seems to simply debate the issues and then back away, leaving the problems unresolved.

Social Security and Medicare reforms were widely debated in Congress but nothing happened. Now with the senators rushing off to vacation, we find the same situation with immigration. The complex bipartisan immigration bill was defeated and then left hanging, although several parts of the bill appeared to have majority support if considered separately.

The dominant public opinion is that there will be no action on immigration until after the 2008 presidential elections. And who knows when constructive changes in Social Security and Medicare will take place?

The word "amnesty" has developed strong emotions, and thus the fate of 12 million illegals will remain undetermined. During the Senate debate, no one came up with an acceptable approach on what to do with this growing percentage of our population. The major problem is clear, but not the answers.

The Senate debate did bring forth some issues where it appeared some solutions could be reached. The question is who will have the courage to propose these issues as bills separate from those arguments which drew negative emotions?

Sen. Elizabeth Dole, North Carolina Republican, set the right tone when she said the Senate should restart "with a laser focus on border security."

In a comment after the Senate vote, Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, issued a broader statement outlining some of the areas where he thought agreement could be reached.

"I voted 'no' because this immigration bill is not ready and has not earned the confidence of the American people," Mr. Alexander said. "With this bill, Congress has been trying to bite off more than it can chew on a problem that has been 20 years in the making. To regain the public's confidence, we ought to scale it back and fix the problem step-by-step by absolutely securing our borders first, then enforcing our laws without amnesty.

"I hope there eventually will be a piece of legislation I can support that will make it possible to secure the border, help prospective citizens learn English and do a better job of welcoming highly skilled foreign workers and researchers who create jobs in the United States. We have more work to do to achieve these goals. I hope Washington has learned some important lessons from this process. The people expect us to deal with major issues but with a full and open debate."

The only problem with his statement is that Mr. Alexander did not volunteer to help restart the actions he prescribed.

During the debate on the immigration bill both sides agreed most strongly on the need to take stronger steps to cut off the flow of immigrants across the border. President Bush offered to approve $4 billion more toward that effort, but, as things stand, Congress has not taken advantage of that offer.

The question of the effectiveness of a border fence is debatable, but clearly the American public has doubts about our ability to control the border, and if a fence will change that, it would be worthwhile. Perhaps more important would be vast increases in border patrol forces and wider use of technical devices such as drone airplanes and radar.

The immigration debate brought forth the fact that a surprisingly large number of members of Congress and U.S. citizens doubt the sincerity and effectiveness of current government efforts to control the border. That is a bad situation in need of immediate remedy.

There are other areas where there is need for immediate action. Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, described the Senate action as a "bump in the road." One of the bumps that could be resolved separately is to approve a temporary farm workers plan, such as that pursued by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat. Our farmers need help, and unless they get it, many crops will be left hanging on the vine as food prices escalate.

During the debate, the Senate considered a provision which would allow future citizenship for illegals who volunteered to serve in our armed forces. Again, it is a good idea that could be considered separately, as could another plan to encourage legal immigration of foreigners with high educational skills in fields such as science and engineering. We, as a nation, need all the brain power we can get in the evolving global economy.

Now is the time for the government to start work at top speed on a fool-proof national identification card. There has been opposition to such a card from the liberals, but it is hard to see how the necessity of such a card differs from the requirements for a Social Security card or a driver's license.

Unfortunately, our government agencies are not known for speed in developing such projects, as illustrated by the current flap over passports. But a tamper-proof ID card is inevitable if we are to live in an age where terrorism prevails in the world. The sooner Congress approves such action the better. We need to end the excuses of firms that hire illegals.

The public takes the view that the government winks at the hiring of illegals, and the sooner we adopt appropriate identification procedures and enforce them, the sooner public confidence will rise.

Looking past the immigration bill, the Senate and the House badly need better leadership in both political parties. The Democrats spend too much time trying to bash the president, and the Republicans remain all too silent. A major part of the problem is the bitter partisanship which prevails. It is a major evil that is destroying the effectiveness of the legislative branch of government.

Lyndon Johnson, Everett Dirksen, Jerry Ford, Sam Rayburn. Where are you? We need you badly.

Herbert G. Klein is a national fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, retired editor-in-chief of Copley Newspapers and former Nixon White House director of communications.