Dismal Legacy of 109th Congress

The 109th Congress left office in the early hours of Saturday morning, December 9, having logged fewer days of legislative activity than even the infamous “Do-Nothing Congress” of 1948. Notably absent from the following list of last-minute “accomplishments” is comprehensive immigration reform, a minimum wage increase, and nine out of 11 appropriations bills needed to fully fund federal activity for the 2007 fiscal year.

The failure to pass a working budget for the federal government—the fundamental constitutional task of Congress—highlights the failures of the conservative leadership of the departing Congress. Indeed, the incoming chairmen of the House and Senate appropriations committees, Rep. David Obey (D-WI) and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV), took a look at the mess left to them and yesterday announced they will hold all spending at 2006 levels after ejecting all special earmarks and begin a more deliberative and open budgeting process next year for the next fiscal year beginning in October 2007.

The Center for American Progress applauds that move, and hopes that the incoming Congress will reconsider or expand upon some of the last minute decisions of the outgoing Do Nothing Congress.

Continuing Resolution

In the lingering minutes of the 109th Congress, the two chambers reached a final agreement on a stop gap funding measure to keep 13 of the 15 departments of the federal government and 63 of its independent agencies from shutting down altogether. This represents a monumental failure of the most central responsibility of the legislative branch—funding the federal government.

The new “continuing resolution,” as the measure is called, is the third that Congress has adopted since the new fiscal year began on October 1. It will provide incremental funding between now and February 15 to those 13 Departments and 63 independent agencies whose budgets have not passed through Congress.

Rep. David Obey and Sen. Robert Byrd, the incoming House and Senate Appropriations Chairmen, have now announced that the failure of the 109th Congress to complete its work leaves little choice but to place those same departments and agencies on continuing funding for the remainder of the fiscal year. That decision was driven by how much of the fiscal year has already passed, the lack of consensus around the content of the unpassed appropriation bills, and the fact that the White House is preparing the largest Supplemental Appropriation request in history.

The Supplemental request is scheduled to arrive in Congress in February along with nearly a trillion dollars in requested spending for fiscal 2008—a request that will remain unresolved next December if the incoming Chairman can’t force Congress to change its habits.

Obey and Byrd also announced that the funding vehicle they plan to put forward will contain none of the billions of dollars in earmarks contained in the Republican bills that were left to die in the 109th. They argue that until Congress had agreed on common sense guidelines to insure accountability, transparency, and restraint in earmarking, that the practice should take a breather.

Leaving nearly 90 percent of the departments and agencies of the federal government at formulaic funding levels is a painful and unfortunate choice, but one that the previous Congress’ irresponsibility made virtually inevitable. Some weaker programs in the federal bureaucracy will probably get more money than can be justified, and some of the more critical and effective activities of the federal government will be underfunded.

The failure to adopt appropriation measures in a timely manner will have another impact on the efficiency of the government and the effective use of tax dollars. Month to month continuing resolutions allow departments and agencies to meet their payrolls and engage in some level of normal activity. But some necessary travel and training is deferred, major contracts are pushed back, and many important equipment upgrades needed to boost productivity are pushed off until later in the fiscal year.

Even if the new full year Continuing Resolution is adopted well before the expiration of the February 15 deadline established by the current resolution, full year money will not get into the hands of program managers and on contract officers’ desks until the fiscal year is nearly half over. That means that they will have six months to 12 months worth of work. The requirements for competitive bidding of contracts can in many instances not be met in six months without cutting corners and bending the rules.

When Congress leaves executive branch employees in a position where there is a choice between diligence in the awarding of grants and contracts or allowing money to lapse, they should not be surprised to see money shoveled out the door in a manner that does not protect the interests of the taxpayer.

The next time the conservative leaders in Congress want to give one of those lengthy speeches about elimination of fraud, waste, and abuse, they should to do it in front of a mirror.

The expert: Scott Lilly

India Nuclear Deal

The controversial United States and India Nuclear Cooperation Promotion Act of 2006 (H.R. 5682) blows a hole in the fabric of U.S. nonproliferation law. The legislation exempts India from the requirements of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 that prevent the United States from engaging in civilian nuclear cooperation with countries that refuse to allow “full-scope” international safeguards over all of their nuclear facilities.

India will accept inspections for some nuclear reactors, but will keep its extensive and secret nuclear weapons and materials production complex off-limits. These partial inspections are all symbol, and no substance.

Republicans and Democrats bear equal blame for this disaster. Leaders of both parties rejected amendments that would have conditioned civil nuclear trade with India on its joining with the United States and other nuclear-weapon states in capping the production of more nuclear bomb material.

The U.S.-India nuclear deal effectively gives India the benefits allowed to signatories of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty without requiring it to meet the responsibilities expected of responsible states. This could mean that India could increase its current production capacity from six to 10 additional nuclear bombs a year to several dozen per year.

Congress and the Bush administration have committed a major nonproliferation error. It will now be up to other states to weigh in and to fix the deep flaws in the arrangement.

The experts: Joe Cirincione, Andy Grotto

Trade

The Vietnam Permanent Normal Trade Relations bill finally passed through Congress on Friday after the legislation was voted down before President Bush’s trip to the Asia-Pacific economic summit last month. The legislation passed along with the Andean Trade Preference Act, which extends trade benefits to Columbia, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia; the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which offers sub-Saharan countries similar benefits; and the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement Act, which gives trade benefits for textiles coming from Haiti.

The regrettable delay of Vietnam PNTR highlights larger frustration in Congress with the outgoing House leadership’s consistent disregard for the proper process in trade policymaking. The bill enjoyed robust bipartisan backing months ago, but in November, then Speaker Dennis Hastert and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas rushed a different version of the bill—unapproved by Thomas’ committee—to a floor vote under special rules. This followed on the heels of the Bush administration cutting a private deal with Sens. Dole and Graham on an anti-textile dumping measure, much to the dismay of fellow senators from both parties.

The trade policymaking process should be collaborative and creative rather than closed-door and close-minded. The 110th Congress and the White House must recommit to a process-oriented, positive, and progressive policy that promotes trade for the common good. Such policy would make trade fair for all—fair for workers, businesses, farmers, and consumers in the United States, and fair for our counterparts around the world.

Trade policy can create commercially meaningful opportunities and promote equitable economic growth and sustainable development around the world. But to do this the United States must recognize the long-term national and global value of cooperation with developing countries to improve labor rights and the environment, and elevate the national and global common good above narrow special interests.

The expert: Jonathan Jacoby

Health Care

Congress swept through a variety of health-related legislation in its last hours on Friday, including a $4.5 billion research funding boost for the National Institutes of Health, continued funding and increased oversight for states’ bioterrorism safety and preparation programs, withdrawal of a planned Medicare payment reduction to physicians, reauthorization of programs that fund state-level treatment of people with HIV and AIDS, partial assistance to prevent children from losing health insurance, and an expansion of the health savings accounts program.

The health savings account legislation, rolled up in a tax cuts package, was quietly rushed onto the floor on Friday at the urging of several major business lobbies eager to reduce medical-insurance costs. Conservatives have promoted HSAs as a way to address health care costs by injecting greater consumer responsibility into the health care system.

The legislation, which passed even though only one committee had previously approved it, allows anyone to shelter thousands of dollars annually in HSAs, regardless of their deductible. Expanding the allowable amount past the deductible is expected to cost the government $1 billion in lost tax revenue over the next decade.

In reality, HSAs more often give consumers higher health care bills and less coverage.

HSAs shift costs to workers, leaving sick people on their own to pay high medical bills. The approach also fails to address the costs associated with high-cost patients who account for most health care spending, nor does it cover the preventive services that lead to long-term improved health and lower costs.

The experts: Karen Davenport, Jeanne Lambrew

Offshore Drilling

The Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act of 2006 (S.3711) passed through the House on Friday, following Senate approval earlier this year. The legislation opens up 8.3 million additional acres in the Gulf of Mexico to offshore drilling.

The bill sets aside 12.5 percent of production revenues for the stateside Land and Water Conservation Fund—a move which should be lauded. Yet this environmental funding comes at the near-certain endangerment of a fragile ecosystem.

Congress has already spent too much time on oil-focused solutions that yield minimal results. We must concentrate on sustainable solutions that focus on kicking America’s oil habit and investing in cleaner energy alternatives. This achievable three-step plan from the Center for American Progress could boost the economy, reduce oil consumption, and protect the environment:

1. Provide farmers the financial tools and expertise to shift towards the production and processing of energy crops.

2. Transform the transportation sector by mandating that all passenger vehicles run on high blends of biofuels and gasoline—or flex fuels—within a decade and expand tax incentives for gas stations that install biofuel pumps.

3. Recognize the threat of global warming by enacting a national carbon cap and trade mechanism that allows farmers and drivers to benefit from the production and use of biofuels that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Energy future based on abundant and clean renewable resources is urgent. America is addicted to oil, and the oil is coming from the most dangerous places in the world. The National Security Task Force on Energy found that the United States can immediately begin strengthening its national security by investing in alternative energy solutions and increasing the viability of nuclear energy.

Americans overwhelmingly support initiatives like these: 86 percent want the government to raise fuel efficiency standards, and 90 percent think the government should do more to support renewable fuels. It will be the job of the 110th Congress to concentrate on real, sustainable energy solutions that will bolster America’s national security, economy, and environment.

The experts: Ana Unruh Cohen, Bracken Hendricks