A commendable bipartisan Congress
By Paul M. Weyrich
The following exchange took place at a meeting I attended before the Congressional recess began last month. House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-MO): "I am reasonably optimistic that we will be able to pass both the Transportation and Energy Conference Reports before we go out." Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James M. (Jim) Inhofe (R-OK): "I am not as optimistic as my friend Roy. I think the Democrats may try to prevent these bills from passing so they can go home and claim we are a do-nothing Congress."
Fortunately for the country Blunt was right. But I'll tell you this. The nation should be grateful to Senator Inhofe for crafting the Transportation Conference Report which passed with little opposition in both the House and the Senate. As Senator Inhofe often has mentioned there are two constitutional matters of importance to the federal government, national defense and infrastructure, formerly called Post Roads.
The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act - A Legacy For Users (SAFETEA-LU), the transportation authorization bill was late in coming. Congress passed several extensions since the last transportation authorization bill, TEA 21, expired. In the end, a good bill came out of the Congress. The bill contains money which is badly needed for our deteriorating highway system. And it contains money for mass transit which is also badly needed. Is it enough? Considering the need, no. Considering that a few decades ago transit received no money from the Transportation Trust Fund, yes.
Senator Inhofe exhibited the patience of Job when shepherding the bill through the Senate. Each Senator had his favorite project. It was worse in the House, where earmarking could have an all time record. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL) deserves much credit for the outcome.
The White House also deserves credit for becoming more flexible than it originally appeared to be when proposing the funding levels. White House demands were too high and the figure was unrealistic. The Senate passed a much larger figure. When the Senate and House conferees finally agreed to a figure the White House withdrew a veto threat. It was good old fashioned politics at its best. There were intense negotiations and all parties made constructive concessions.
What is striking is the fact that using the Transportation Trust Fund for mass transit is no longer controversial. When the Trust Fund was made available to transit it was a huge, emotional issue. Legislators lined up on both sides of the aisles as if the world would come to an end. Now they take for granted that transit will get its share (SAFETEA-LU would share more than 18%) and the only question for the negotiators was how much funding transit should receive.
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 also was a feather in Inhofe's cap. He and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-TX), who was the driving force behind the bill in the House, worked long and hard to craft an energy bill which Congress would pass. Liberals charged that the measure was a "giveaway" for oil barons. Some Conservatives complained that the bill greatly manipulated market forces. In the end, the Energy Conference Report passed by a wide margin, although by not as wide a margin as the Transportation Conference Report passed. There is money in the energy to promote clean coal technology, to expand oil and gas exploration, to revive the nuclear power industry and to develop alternative fuels. It is a bill in the best interest of the country. The White House agrees.
Congress has received its lowest ratings since 1994. Voters seem profoundly upset with both political parties. They think Congress has done little but engage in partisan bickering. Not so. So far the 109th Congress has been remarkably productive. It also has passed dozens of smaller measures, such as the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (Gun Control) to preclude lawsuits against gun manufacturers when a person or group uses a gun to take a life. The bill had 31 opponents in the Senate. So much for the idea that the NRA has lost some of its clout.
What is striking about this Congress is that many Democrats have voted for conference reports produced by the Republican Leadership. I was not in favor of CAFTA and had I a vote in the Congress mine would have been "No." The CAFTA bill passed after 15 Democrats abandoned the Democratic Leadership to support the bill. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, of San Francisco, the liberal House Minority Leader, is deciding how to sanction the 15 Democrats who voted with Republicans. CAFTA passed the House by two votes. If two of the defecting Democrats had followed her leadership, CAFTA would have failed.
Rep. Pelosi had better be careful. The last time Democrats sanctioned a House Member for helping Republicans, that Member resigned, switched parties and was re-elected first as a Republican Representative and then as a Senator. His name was Phil Gramm, of Texas.
Numerous Democrats have voted for most issues to come before the House. This pattern is less common in the Senate where the caucus of Moderate Senators has one member, Democratic Senator Ben Nelson, of Nebraska. Even in that body much legislation has made it out of the gate with bi-partisan support.
The problem seems to be that the Majority in Congress does not have a good public relations operation to let constituents know that the Majority earnestly is legislating. The economy is growing nicely despite high energy prices. All the negativity of the Minority Leadership seems to have paid off because voters seem to think our nation is in terrible economic shape. Yes, part of the discontent is three wars. But even when voter opinion is categorized, the public seems to blame the President and the Congress for a terrible economy which currently does not exist.
Will the Majority be able to turn around the perception that this is a "do nothing Congress?" It remains to be seen. It is August. Few pay attention to such things in August. Perhaps the President should postpone his signing ceremonies until after Labor Day. Then if Judge John G. Roberts, Jr. is approved by the Senate, voters would begin to get the picture. This is one effective President working with a highly productive Congress.
Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.
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