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A SURPRISINGLY POSITIVE SESSION

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In the wake of Congress' pell-mell push toward summer recess last week, the Republic ought to pause and consider the miracle that is our system of government.

The final hours seemed driven by political favors and the almost desperate desire to find issues suitable to misconstrue in campaign commercials - things Americans have come to loathe. Yet the process, taken on the whole, produced surprisingly sound results.President Clinton agreed to sign a welfare reform bill that effectively erases 60 years of failed New Deal policies - policies once considered too entrenched to move. As a result, states will have the freedom to tailor welfare programs to their own unique needs. Utah no longer will have to seek dozens of federal waivers to enact effective plans, and a federal system that discouraged industry and ambition has been dismantled.

The new system isn't perfect. Critics are right to worry that children may needlessly suffer. But they were suffering under the old federal system. Now the debate has shifted to individual state capitols, where it belonged all along.

Whether Clinton agreed to sign because he feared Republicans could throw a veto in his face, or whether he did it for philosophical reasons, the bill stands as the most remarkable achievement to date for the 104th Congress.

The final hours before recess also were remarkable for the things left undone. Most of these were bills the nation would be better off without. Two measures were deliberately aimed toward immigrants. One would allow states to force the children of illegal immigrants out of public schools. The other would make English the official language of the federal government.

Both would succeed only in fomenting bigotry and in creating bigger problems for the future. Illegal immigrants aren't likely to leave the country because their children are denied an education. But those children are likely to grow up to be burdens on society.

Congress also failed to pass anti-terrorist legislation - a bill drafted in the heat of anger over recent incidents in Atlanta and on a TWA jet. While the part of the bill that would have required explosives to contain tracing materials would have been helpful, a part allowing the federal government broader powers to wiretap would have been a serious violation of civil liberties.

But the political process isn't always good. Congress deserves a collective rap on the knuckles for raising the minimum wage from $4.25 to $5.15 an hour. This populist move was a ruse. Hikes in the minimum wage do little more than eliminate jobs and cause inflation.

If that were not true, Congress might as well have raised the wage to $100 an hour and wiped out poverty in one bold stroke. But the effects of the minimum wage become obvious when exaggerated. They are just as damaging, however, when taken incrementally.

No doubt the level of political rhetoric and one-upmanship will sink to new lows when Congress reconvenes this fall. It's not something to look forward to, except for the hope that our system of government will again act as a bulwark against too much bad legislation.