Close election may mean legislative gridlock for the next four years

At the time this column was written, the outcome of the Presidential election was still uncertain, pending recounts in Florida.

No matter who becomes President, however, he will face the most contentious, partisan Congress in recent history. Washington pundits gave great accolades to President Clinton for being able to accomplish anything at all with the current Congress - he is a gifted compromise - but whether Al Gore or George Bush will be nearly as successful is doubtful.

The numbers tell the story. For the past two years, the House of Representatives - 223 Republicans, 210 Democrats and 2 Independents - gave the Republicans a razor-thin edge. It was enough to thwart Clinton on areas involving Medicare, prescription drugs and other social issues. On the other hand, the Republicans were unable to move their hot-items agenda along either, especially in the area of tax cuts.

EVEN SPLIT SPELLS TROUBLE With two spots still undecided, the new House will give the Republicans an even smaller edge - 220 Republicans, 211 Democrats and 2 Independents - making gridlock even worse.

As for the Senate, with one seat in Washington State still undecided at press time, the upper body will be even more closely balanced. Current count expects the Democrats to gain at least three seats, moving from 46 to 49 members, and the Republicans to lose three seats, dropping from 54 to 50 seats.

Since more than a simple majority vote is usually needed to ratify things such as international treaties and confirm federal appointments, both sides will have a tough time gaining traction. This could have an impact on trucking-related issues such as the Kyoto Protocol, which affects diesel emissions levels, and who is confirmed as the Secretary of Transportation.

Although House leaders have remained fairly mum so far, Senate leaders are trying to reassure the American public that they can overcome the expected gridlock. About a week after the election, both Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) put positive spins on the situation, saying that both parties now have an even greater incentive to work together.

"We will have to think innovatively; we're prepared to work with the Democrats and find common ground," Lott said. Daschle, through a spokesperson, noted: "We need to find a power-sharing arrangement with the Republicans. We need to start right away."

Both sides will have an opportunity in January to show that they can work things out when the Senate's first job will be to make committee assignments. This is crucial to both political parties because the one that picks the chairmen has an edge in setting the agenda and deciding which issues will be put on the front burner.

For trucking, the most immediate changes will occur at the federal agencies, primarily the Dept. Transportation (DOT), Dept. of Labor, which encompasses OSHA, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The President will appoint people to these Cabinet posts who will further his beliefs.

However, as we've seen during the last session, more opposition to government regulations is finding its way into Congress, where opponents hope to have legislators friendly to their interests overturn agency rules.

This was certainly the case with hours-of-service reform; the American Trucking Assns. and other groups successfully lobbied legislators until they passed a one-year moratorium on the ruling, essentially neutralizing DOT's power.

It's still not clear whether the new Congress, which is split more evenly down the middle, will be able to overturn an agency's ruling.

PARTISAN PAYBACK There's one more wildcard to consider when looking at the political future. All the rancor surrounding the Presidential election, in which the losing side most likely believes that its opponent was elected unfairly, means that partisan payback is inevitable. We may be in for a gridlocked and mean-spirited four years that go well beyond the simple arithmetic.