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Congress’ Busy Agenda Just Got Even Busier

The heavy agenda Congress faces for the remainder of the year has gotten much heavier over the past week. The botched car bomb in New York puts a new emphasis on threats to the homeland, and it will (or should) require a renewed focus on the threat that exists to the most endangered places in America, namely New York and Washington, the sites of previous terrorist attacks. That should mean enhanced oversight of our mechanisms in place and inadequacies in response — including our chronic problems of coordinated communication for first responders.

But it should also mean another wake-up call — about the hundredth — for Congress to do something to protect our constitutional institutions of governance from decapitation via an attack. More than eight years after 9/11, we still have no serious plans in place to deal with a disruption of government that could follow an attack on the House or Senate, no plan to deal with an attack on the Supreme Court, and a wholly inadequate presidential succession act. Despite private assurances to the contrary, neither chamber has held serious hearings on the subjects or moved forward with any action. This is malpractice on a grand scale.

The car bomb is appropriately getting a lot of attention. But so are two other recent events that will force Congress to consider or reconsider its agenda this year: the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Arizona law targeting immigrants. Conventional wisdom has had it that there was little chance of a climate change bill getting enacted this year and no chance of an immigration bill. Conventional wisdom may still be right, but both issues have been complicated by these events, and both need at least a renewed focus, and a wider focus, by Congress.

The oil spill, of course, has even broader implications than climate change. There will be major economic fallout, which will add substantially to government costs for disaster relief and to ameliorate the economic effects of the spill, especially if it spreads across the Gulf and potentially up the East Coast. This will add to deficits for this year and next and make the budget plans for both chambers more complicated. And if, as some experts fear, the economic costs will be substantial and sustained, it could create another dip in the economy, requiring possibly another stimulus.

I can’t tell at this point whether the catastrophic oil spill increases the chances of a climate change bill moving forward, or kills it dead. Certainly, the hope of finding some modest bipartisan support for the Graham/Kerry/Lieberman plan rested on the president’s willingness to entertain an expansion of offshore drilling (as well as movement on nuclear power). The need to step back from that pledge, via a moratorium for now, may limit GOP support for any bill, while any proposal that might expand offshore drilling could cause some Democrats to disavow the legislation.

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