Archive for Monday, February 16, 2004

Congressional year off to sleepy start

February 16, 2004


— You may be curious, as I have been, how the Congress of the United States has been occupying its time this winter, while President Bush was defending his National Guard attendance record and the Democrats were deciding which candidate to send out to match wits with him -- or at least with Tim Russert.

Unable to hang out on Capitol Hill, as is my wont, I did the next best thing. When I was back in Washington for a couple days between the South Carolina and Wisconsin primaries, I grabbed a handful of Congressional Records and read up on what I'd been missing.

As you may know, the lawmakers didn't exactly race back from their Christmas vacations. The session started only on Jan. 20, the date of Bush's State of the Union address. But the very next day, the House held its first substantive votes of the year. In a single dramatic session, it passed momentous resolutions honoring the contributions of Catholic schools, saluting school mentors and supporting efforts to recruit more of them, recognizing and commending the achievements of NASA and others involved in the Mars Rover mission and agreeing with the sentiment of the Senate regarding the untimely death of former Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois.

Not only did it pass all these in a single day but it did so after notably civil debate and with but one dissenting vote, from Rep. Maurice Hinchey of New York, on the Catholic school question.

I think this augurs extremely well for a productive and harmonious session -- a sharp contrast to the sometimes bitter debates over Medicare and other issues that marred last year's record.

This session also promises to be a model of efficiency. Two days later, when the House next convened, an able member from Wisconsin, Rep. Thomas E. "Tim" Petri, the acting speaker, banged his gavel at 10 a.m., called on the chaplain for a prayer, led the Pledge of Allegiance, and adjourned the body at 10:05, giving these hard-working members a well-deserved four-day break.

When they returned on the 27th, there was more evidence of comity and productivity. With only one dissent, this one from Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the House passed a bill extending the life of the breast cancer stamp from 2005 to 2006. This required explaining to members the concept of the "semi-postal stamp," which in this case, invites customers to pay 45 cents for a standard 37-cent first-class stamp, with the extra 8 cents going to the National Institutes of Health and (I'm not kidding) the Department of Defense breast cancer research program.

For good measure, the lawmakers also passed (unanimously) the Medical Devices Technical Corrections Act, but you will have to contact your congressman for an explanation of its significance.

I do not want you to think the Senate was sitting idle, simply observing this burst of activity on the other side of the Capitol. Far from it. The Senate discussed many important issues and agreed that most of them need further reflection.

Senators understand that the Constitution does not intend them to be hasty. Thus, one reads that Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said, "I look forward to having further discussions with the majority leader (Bill Frist of Tennessee) with regard to taking the next legislative step with regard to the Omnibus bill. ... I do think it is important, as we said yesterday, for the Senate to focus its attention on some of the issues we cited yesterday as real policy concerns. There were procedural concerns about how we got here, but the policy concerns are the ones that can be addressed and can be fixed. I certainly want to assure my colleagues we will look for other vehicles and other ways to address each of these issues over the course of the next several weeks and months. I will have more to say about that later in the day."

John Kerry lived for 19 years in an environment where such redundant ramblings pass for speech, and imitating that style damn near crippled his bid for the Democratic nomination. He recovered just in the nick of time.

The Senate, inspired by Daschle and others, focused so well on "the Omnibus" that it actually passed that gargantuan appropriations bill -- only four months after the government's fiscal year began. Another happy portent of great achievements still to come. Selfishly, though, I have to say that reading what Congress has been doing made me regret being stuck out on the campaign trail. I hate to miss all the excitement back there.

David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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