A Congressional Christmas Carol

As a new Congress prepares to be sworn in January, legislators are reflecting on legislation that they recently passed and are considering new proposals for the future.

Unfortunately, it appears that the Republican-led Congress has had a change of heart since those inspiring days of the Contract With America, when we witnessed daily battles over changes that would shrink the size of government while making it more accountable. By last summer Republicans had become tired of being called fiscal Scrooges by the Democrats, and so, at least for a while, decided to mend their conservative ways.

Upon the self-realization of just how stingy he had been, Ebenezer Scrooge gave away a turkey; Congress gave away pork. And indications are that many enjoyed their acts of generosity – as did some of the voters.

In light of the season and the unusual turn of events, we shall, therefore, present:

A Congressional Christmas Carol

Enter the Congressional Ghost of Christmas Past. Last year President

Clinton was in a stew. For months his popularity had been declining. Very few people thought he had a chance at reelection. He had even had to tell the press that he was still "relevant." The president needed a miracle.

And then one came. During his budget battles with Republicans, the federal government was shut down, at one point right before Christmas. That shutdown turned out to be a public relations nightmare for Republicans. They were seen as cruel, heartless Scrooges who didn't care about the needs of people, even at Christmas time. Even though it was clear that laid-off federal workers would get their salaries, the event played into the hands of the media who identified no small number of Bob Cratchits whose Christmas was going to be spoiled because of Congressional indifference to their plight.

Enter the Congressional Ghost of Christmas Present. All year long the Republicans in Congress have been haunted by the Ghost of Christmas Past, which came to them at night with images of declining poll numbers and losing their majority in the House and Senate.

They pleaded with the Ghost and asked what they could do to make amends. The Ghost replied: "Work together to pass bipartisan legislation." And so they did. Congress decided to pass a health insurance reform bill that many, only a few months earlier, would have called the first step towards a Clinton health care plan. Congress decided to increase the minimum wage so as to boast that its members had given Bob Cratchit a raise.

Congress rushed to impose, for the first time ever, federal health insurance mandates requiring employers and insurance companies to cover mental illness health care needs and provide two-day stays for delivering mothers. This was done so that no one could later point to a Tiny Tim, who remained sick and in need of care.

Never mind that these laws would in time have adverse, unintended consequences. That was not as important as ensuring that the 104th Congress not be accused of being stingy.

Finally, enter the Congressional Ghost of Christmas Future. In the original version of "A Christmas Carol," Scrooge's conversion at the end of the book means that he will no longer be haunted by the ghosts: not so in a "Congressional Christmas Carol." The ghosts of Christmas Past and Present have only just begun to haunt them. And by this time next year, they'll be faced with the Congressional Ghost of Christmas Future.

Congress is already considering the goodies it can hand out so that no one will accuse its members of being Scrooges next Christmas.

Congresswoman Nancy Johnson (R-CT) will introduce a health insurance bill requiring insurers to cover at least a two-day hospital stay when a woman has a mastectomy. Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Representative Pete Stark (D-CA) will be introducing legislation to provide universal health insurance to uninsured children. President Clinton will be introducing legislation to pay workers' health insurance premiums during a period of job transition. He also intends to provide tax credits or tax deductions for parents who want to send their children to college.

There is a problem in all this, of course. Ebenezer Scrooge apparently had plenty of money to pay for his new-found generosity. Congress doesn't. Indeed, Congress can do little more than hand the bill to the rest of us to pay.

So get a good seat, the play is about to begin. In Dickens' version of "A Christmas Carol" only Scrooge was subject to the hauntings. In the Congressional version, these ghosts may come back to haunt us all.