Monday, November 26, 2007

Do Nothing or Much Ado About Nothing?

Congress returns to Washington next week after its Thanksgiving Day “break.” Normally, the legislature would be “in recess.” But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, suspecting that President Bush might try to use a formal break in the congressional calendar to appoint administration nominees who have been unable to garner Senate confirmation, employed Senate rules to technically keep the Senate “in session” even though virtually all senators were in their home states.

This is but one example of the poisonous atmosphere that has pervaded Washington for more than a decade and hardened the chances for reasoned debate and principled action in doing the public’s business. It is compounded by the narrow majority the Democrats have in the 110th Congress, particularly in the Senate. Should the White House or 40 or more Republicans oppose legislation or any part of any legislation, nothing will be signed into public law.

You may recall that in October and early November, President Bush publicly castigated the Congress for failing to send him any of the 12 annual appropriations bills or the war supplemental for 2008. Now without an appropriation, the federal government legally cannot spend money. To avoid a government shut-down October 1, when the 2008 fiscal year began, Congress passed and sent to the president a Continuing Resolution (CR) that Bush signed September 29 (PL 110-92) funding the government at 2007 levels through mid-November. Congress extended the CR to mid-December with Bush signing the extension that keeps the government going to mid-December. (Actually, this CR funds at the 2006 level because the federal government operated throughout Fiscal Year (FY) 2007 on a CR based on FY2006 levels.)

If you sense a contradiction in the last paragraph, you would be correct. When legislation becomes law, it is assigned a number in sequence for each Congress. Thus the CR of September 29 is the 92nd piece of legislation that has become law in the 110th Congress.
In fact, through November 19, the President has signed into law 120 bills passed by Congress – that according to the authoritative Congressional Quarterly (CQ) dated November 26, 2007. Yet Bush accuses the 110th Congress of being a “do nothing” assembly.

Between September 14, when Congress returned from their summer-Labor Day recess, and November 19, when the House recessed and the Senate “broke” for Thanksgiving, Bush signed 38 pieces of legislation passed by the Congress and vetoed two. Congress successfully overrode one veto, on water resources, which became law (PL 110-114), but failed to override the veto on the Labor-HHS-Education legislation.

But now look at what Congress did in terms of the substance (my take) of the legislation sent to the White House.

Government reform 3 (lobbying; drug and pesticide safety)
Treasury 3 (coinage; increase debt ceiling; Internet tax)
Education 5 (U.S.-Poland parliamentary youth exchange;
three on college funding; Higher Education Act)
Peace Corps 1 (contractor funding)
Appropriations 2 (CR; Defense Appropriations)
Trade issues 2 (trade assistance; emergency economic powers)
Veterans 2 (suicide prevention; disability pay)
Water resources 1 (rivers and harbors; passed over veto)
Other/Mixed 7 (medals; monuments; museums; 9/11 victims;
Naming post offices, 14
highways, Veterans

Mote than half – 21 public laws – are essentially aimed at ceremonial issues. This is considered “good use” of congressional time? Hardly, I submit.

And what of the eleven remaining appropriations bills that are still pending? Bush has threatened outright to veto eight as too expensive, has demanded funding offsets on one (Military Construction), has made no comment on one (legislative branch funding), and is apparently waiting to see what changes will be made in any revamped Labor-HHS-Education bill.

He has also threatened to veto the congressional version of the “War and Disaster Supplemental Appropriations for Fiscal 2008” because the Congress has attached conditions to the bill.

Next year voters will elect a new president, a new House of Representatives, and one third of the Senate. It might be worthwhile in October 2008, when Congress will have gone home to campaign, to see what the members accomplished in the 110th’s second session – what substantive bills were proposed, who blocked action on bills within Congress and why, what bills President Bush vetoed and their fate in any override attempt.

And in the same month, the electorate needs to make sure that every incumbent running for re-election can provide to those paying the bills – the taxpayers – straight answers about why he or she voted for or against substantive legislation and justify why the electorate should return them to Washington. Nor would it be unwise to let new candidates running for office know what voters expect of those sent to Washington – and what will not be tolerated any more, either in the White House or in Congress.

Indeed, it’s not a question of Congress “doing nothing” as it is both parties trying to lay responsibility for nothing getting done on the other. The only legislation that seems to move are ceremonial items (the “other/mixed” and “naming” entries above) while gridlock blocks debate and action on such vital issues as war, peace, the environment, education, and health.

November 2008, the people will have the opportunity to make “Much Ado about [Do] Nothing” politicians.


Anonymous kindlingman said...

Thank goodness. A Congressional failure to pass legislation is a good thing for America.
One of my colleagues has the idea that we should change the salaries for Congress to be $200,000 per year but they lose $1,000 every time they meet and they lose $5,000 every time they vote on something.
This is the Congressional Incentive plan to save America.

10:03 PM  
Blogger Carolyn Meehan said...

The words, "In order to form a more prefect union..." come to mind concerning the state we are in now. We are not coming together at all, I feel. Divison and divisiveness are much easier than working together for the common good. I fear that the congress is a reflection of the Amerfican people in general: The easy way out is taken way to often. I don't feel America or the earth can take much more of this.

6:23 AM  

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