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Wednesday, August 3, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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David S. Broder

How Quickly Voters Forget Votes, Quotes Of Congress

Washington Post Writers Group

WASHINGTON - If one of the defects in the workings of our democracy is the lack of accountability for members of Congress, the voters are much more to blame than the politicians. Memories are just too short.

In the 1992 election, for example, far more members of Congress were punished for their overdrafts in the House bank than for their votes on the resolution authorizing the use of force in the 1991 Persian Gulf showdown with Saddam Hussein. I thought - and wrote - back then that the Democratic Party would and should be held accountable for the fact that large majorities of its members in both the House and Senate opposed authorizing offensive action against Iraq when President Bush sought Congress' approval.

Democratic leaders predicted then that not one of their incumbents would be defeated for opposing the war, and they were right. But the voters were wrong to ignore the signal. The Democrats' institutional failure to recognize what was - even before the lightning military victory - a clear-cut case of justified use of force was significant. Even though Albert Gore Jr., as a senator, supported Bush's action and Bill Clinton, as a governor, implied that was also his view, the government they head - reflecting the waverings of their party - has failed to set forth any clear criteria for the manner, time, place and conditions for U.S. military intervention. Thus, the confusion of U.S. policy in the past 18 months in Bosnia, Somalia, Korea, Haiti and other hot spots around the globe was foreshadowed by the Democrats' dithering on the Gulf.

Whatever voters do, the press has a responsibility to keep score on which party was right and which was wrong on big policy questions. The biggest one since Clinton became president occurred a year ago this week, with the passage of his budget and economic plan. The party lines were drawn even more sharply than on the Persian Gulf War; every single Republican in the House and Senate opposed that budget. They not only opposed it, they denounced it.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) called it a "terrible bill. . . . It's not good for the economy and it's going to be terrible for small business." "We have a sick economy," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) "and now we're bleeding it."

Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) was particularly scathing on the final day of Senate debate. He set up a blank chart, which he said listed all the real deficit reductions in the bill, and, imitating a carnival barker, bellowed, "Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, with Magical Bill and his band of liberal magicians. . . . Smoke and mirrors!"

It was much the same the day before, when the House voted. Rep. Bill Archer (R-Texas), who would be chairman of the Ways and Means Committee in a Republican Congress, said, "The president claims the vast majority of these taxes will hurt only the rich, and that is baloney. . . . Americans know these new tax increases are job-killing poison for the economy."

Rep. Richard Armey (R-Texas), chairman of the House Republican Conference and the top Republican on the Joint Economic Committee, said, "Taxes will go up. The economy will sputter along . . . and the deficit will reach another record high. . . . It is a recipe for disaster."

And Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), in line to be Speaker if the House goes Republican, said, "If I were only a Republican partisan, I would hope that this tax-increase bill would pass by one or two votes so that every Democrat who voted yes would bear the responsibility for a massive tax increase and the job-killing recession it will lead to."

The budget passed the House by two votes, the Senate by one. Where are we now? A year later, unemployment is at 6 percent, a three-and-a-half-year low. Inflation in the last year has been averaging 2.5 percent, as low as it ever gets. After spurting in the last quarter of 1993, the economy has been growing at a steady pace, between 3 percent and 4 percent, for the past six months. It has been adding more than 200,000 net new jobs a month.

Business investment in new plants and equipment - a key to future productivity and wage increases - rose 13.4 percent over the past year. Last year saw the largest number of new business incorporations since World War II. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the federal deficit for the current fiscal year has been cut from $291 billion (the estimate when Clinton came in) to $223 billion; the deficit for next year, from $284 billion to $171 billion. The higher income taxes of which the Republicans warned were paid this year by 1.2 percent of those filing - the wealthiest 1.4 million - exactly as the administration had insisted. Millions more of the working poor had their taxes cut, raising them above the poverty line.

None of this proves that the Democrats will be right next time on the economy any more than the Persian Gulf vote proved they will always be wrong on national security matters. But it is foolish to ignore politicians' records. If we want accountability, we have to remember what they said and how they voted.

(Copyright, 1994, Washington Post Writers Group)

David S. Broder's column appears Wednesday and Sunday on editorial pages of The Times.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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