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This Week – Both the House and Senate took Monday off for the observance of Yom Kippur. They expect to hit the ground running on Tuesday when the Senate resumes consideration of H.R. 5093, The Interior Appropriations Act. They will also continue to debate H.R. 5005, The Homeland Security Act, which the President has repeatedly asked for before the November elections.
The House will consider legislation that would block states from restricting interest rates on rent-to-own transactions (H.R. 1701) and legislation to make the repeal of the estate tax permanent.
It appears that the operative word for Washington this week, or perhaps even this month, would be gridlock. It feels as if we are all in a big vat of legislative jello. At times, I think everyone would be best served if Congress just passed a continuing resolution (a measure to allow funding after the fiscal year ends on September 30th) and went home. Not a likely scenario though since all the members feel they have to justify their ever expanding salaries by hanging out and pontificating on a near empty House or Senate floor. With a little over six weeks remaining before election day, the clock begins to tick louder and louder – homeland security… appropriations bills…how do you get these initiatives passed in an election year atmosphere and make it a winning issue for your respective party?
Following is a brief summary of where some of the most important legislation stands:
Department of Homeland Security – A top priority for the White House, President Bush has asked repeatedly for Congress to finalize this bill and get it to his desk. The House passed its version even before the August recess but the Senate is still debating and debating and debating! I know it is dubbed ‘the world's greatest deliberative body’ but when it gets bogged down for days on inconsequential minutiae are the Senators really doing this country a service? The current impasse appears to be opposition from Senate octogenarian Robert Byrd (D-WV). In an attempt to derail this important legislation he has consistently thrown monkey wrench after monkey wrench into the works. His latest antic included a three and a half hour diatribe where he used up precious Senate debate time discussing such asinine topics as “The Honeymooners” and Charles I of England. Ironically, he conducted this useless tirade in an attempt to get people to ‘talk about the bill.’ While there are some legitimate differences between the Senate and House bill such as the worker flexibility provision and a proposed expansion of Davis-Bacon regulations, if the Senate can get off the stick and pass something, this bill could end up in law before the election.
Appropriations – Before Congress can adjourn for the year, the one thing they have to finish is funding the federal government through 13 appropriations bills. Considering that the fiscal budget ends at the end of this month and not one bill has been sent to the President, we may have a problem. With a faltering economy and the re-emergence of budget deficits, Washington cannot afford to continue it’s spending sprees of the last few years. Yet the Republican moderates want to continue spending without impunity. This battle is playing out over the always-contentious Labor-HHS bill. The President’s level of $130 billion (a sizeable increase over last year) just isn’t enough for the big spending moderates and the Democrats. However, thankfully this year the House leadership - in conjunction with the conservatives - put their foot down and promised to get a bill closer to the President’s level. So far an agreement has proven elusive. Once the battle over Labor-HHS is worked out, that leaves another 7 or 8 bills with all of their issues and concerns. Suffice to say, at this point it doesn’t appear likely that Congress will pass all 13 appropriations bills and get them to the President before November 5. And while the potential exists for an omnibus, considering the past negativity associated with this tool, I would hope that Leadership would be loath to use it.
Minimum Wage – Since the Senate has so much time after completing their legislative requirements (not!) Daschle has listed a minimum wage increase as one of his priorities in the next few weeks. Never mind the fact that we continue to suffer the lingering effects of an economic downturn, which would be exacerbated by a minimum wage increase to stifle job creation in the small business community; or that the only person who wants this is Mr. Ted Kennedy; or the fact that even if this passed in the Senate it would never be brought up in the House; Daschle continues to look for ways to attach an increase to pending legislation. It is anybody’s guess whether or not this legislation will actually be successfully attached to legislation in the Senate, but even if it were, it would die a well-deserved death in the House.
Medical Malpractice Reform- The House, which has done a yeoman’s job of keeping the legislative initiative this year, has set its sites on enacting reasonable limits on medical malpractice awards. The entire nation has been suffering the effects of higher health care costs caused by unlimited damage awards, liability insurance, and defensive medicine. As noted in CSE’s Chief Economist Wayne Brough’s piece “Is There a Doctor Left in the House?”, some rural areas literally cannot find any doctors.
The legislation would limit non-economic and punitive damage awards, cap attorney’s fees and provide for proportional liability. The bill would also set a uniform statute of limitations to ensure that medical malpractice lawsuits are filed on a timely basis. While passage in the House is good possibility, the Senate, which has opposed any tort reform initiatives will likely not undertake this much needed legislation.