Congress has much work to do.
Appropriations. Of course, there are the 13 annual spending bills that must be passed to keep the government open and functioning, but in the current political climate, even that will prove a challenge. Congress was only able to complete action on one of these bills before the recess, though the House has passed all but three of the measures. The Senate, on the other hand, has held hearings on only three of the bills and passed just one. The combination of the short timetable, the amount of work remaining and the election climate raise the probability that a catch-all, or omnibus, bill will be used to pass the spending bills.
9/11 Commission Report. Congress will also be faced with doing work on the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. Senator Kerry made the Commission report a campaign issue by pledging that he would pass all of its recommendations, which some observers believe forced the Bush administration to act on some of them. In fact, Congress held several hearings during the summer break on the 9/11 Commission's report and seems poised to respond legislatively.
While President Bush has backed the creation of a National Intelligence Director, Congress must authorize creation of the position, as well as determine whether the new position will be independent of the administration or whether it will be a cabinet post. Once the post is created, the president will nominate a person to fill that role, who must be confirmed by the Senate--a process that is sure to be full of partisanship.
International Tax Reform Legislation. Work remains on legislation that would repeal international tax law that was deemed an illegal trade subsidy by the World Trade Organization last year. As an incentive for the U.S. government to pass new legislation, the WTO has been fining domestic manufacturers on their exports since March of this year. That fine structure, which began at 5 percent, increases by 1 percent every month that action is not completed, meaning that if Congress does not act before recessing for the year, companies will be faced with fines of 16 percent by February 2005--the first date that Congress could realistically act.
The legislation in question is tied up in a conference committee where members of Congress are trying to "iron out" the differences between the House and Senate versions. This bill has the greatest chance of passing, as it is considered a "must do" item.
Energy Bill. Congress still has work to do on legislation that would set a national energy policy and seek to prevent massive power outages, like the one that occurred in the New York area in August 2003. This legislation ran into a roadblock in the Senate, where there was disagreement about liability over the gasoline additive MTBE. The Senate did succeed in adding certain tax provisions from the energy bill to the international tax bill (see above), but the remainder of the legislation faces a slim chance of passing the Senate. All in all, there is little hope that a comprehensive energy bill will become law this year.
Transportation Bill. Before members left for the recess, Congress came close to reaching an agreement on legislation that would reauthorize the 1998 Highway Transit Law that provides funding for highway projects throughout the country, but the deal eventually fell through. Congressional staffers have been working through the recess to come to an agreement, but thus far, no agreement has been reached, and it remains to be seen whether the sides will be able to resolve their differences before Congress recesses for the year.
During this political season, both sides of the aisle will point fingers and blame the other for dragging their feet on these important issues, but in the end, not much will become law. It behooves the Democrats to paint the Republican-controlled Congress as a "do nothing" Congress, and it helps the Republican incumbents to point fingers at the Democrats and cry foul for foot-dragging. And this year, as with every fourth year, Congress will grind to a halt as both sides dig in their heels and await the outcome of the November presidential election.
Bob Shepler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is FEI's Director of Federal Affairs.
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|Date:||Sep 1, 2004|
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