Get Ready: It Could Be an Ugly Year For the House, Senate

Posted January 15, 2004 at 1:49pm

It is going to be a tough call this year: Should I watch the House of Representatives on C-SPAN or the new reality show “My Big, Fat, Obnoxious Fiancé” on Fox?

[IMGCAP(1)]It is not clear which will offer more revolting entertainment or stomach-churning moments. Of course, we can always turn to WWE from time to time to cleanse the palate.

Over on C-SPAN, the 108th Congress will showcase its final year with a heavy agenda, limited time to accomplish it and a continuing hangover of bitterness and acrimony that will cover both chambers, especially the House.

The House departed on a particularly sour note, with the special order called by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to discuss allegations of attempted bribery involving Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) on the Medicare prescription drug vote, and more generally the unprecedented and outrageous extension of the vote for nearly three hours. Tellingly, not one of the top leaders of the majority took to the floor, leaving the heavy lifting to surrogates. As a harbinger of things to come, one of the surrogates, Rules Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.), told a radio audience that he not only saw nothing wrong with holding a vote open for three hours, but he also was fine with holding a vote open for days!

Left unresolved was a key question: Will any House Democrat formally initiate a request for an ethics committee investigation into the bribery allegations? The House has operated for some time under an uneasy truce to avoid a return to the use of ethics charges as a political weapon. But if any allegation cries out for an investigation, this is it. Nonetheless, if the formal call is made, it may trigger Republican retaliation on the ethics front and a new destructive arms race.

To be sure, the anger and bitterness felt by most House Democrats has not yet translated into any ability to block GOP legislation. But heading into a presidential election year, with the remarkable Republican unity showing signs of cracks on issues such as appropriations and immigration, the challenge to House GOP leaders is going to be much greater.

Under these circumstances and with the major prize of a prescription drug benefit to wave on the campaign trail, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and his colleagues clearly would like to go through the year with few difficult issues or votes to contend with; the last thing they want are signs as an election approaches of the wheels coming off their GOP machine.

But as a Jan. 5 Roll Call article points out, the leaders will not be able to coast through the year. There is a series of action-forcing issues to deal with, from a replacement for the 30-year Treasury bond to a tricky trade issue involving foreign sales corporations to transportation and welfare reauthorization. Then there will be presidential initiatives on expanded retirement accounts (i.e., more big tax cuts), immigration, and space travel and settlement, which means both controversy and cost.

Next comes a series of unfinished agenda items, such as asbestos litigation, special education, energy (again) and Head Start. And there is the knotty issue of extending unemployment benefits as the recovery continues to be largely jobless, not to mention raising the minimum wage.

In the Senate, the acrimony is not quite as great as it is in the House, but it is still palpable. And with a presidential election fought on the twin turfs of the two parties’ ideological bases, the likelihood that the issue of judicial nominations will be raised by Republicans repeatedly to excite their base will make the acrimony levels rise sharply. The action will start with the other major unfinished item — the huge omnibus appropriations bill, which includes several highly charged substantive items. The most significant is the president’s plan on overtime rules and pay, which became far more explosive with the publication of Labor Department advice to companies on how to screw their employees under the new rules. Add to that the rejiggering of rules on broadcast station ownership, and you have a heavy temptation by Democrats and a few Republicans to block action on the bill.

So let us consider what lies ahead: a possible lengthy debate on the omnibus, maybe a filibuster, combined with a return to focus on energy, especially in the context of a bang-up Senate race in ethanol-rich South Dakota, combined with the other action forcing issues, combined with what is almost certain to be a presidential initiative to help the uninsured (and to pre-empt another Democratic issue), combined with the need to do 13 more appropriations bills this year, combined with a clear need to revisit our troop levels in the Defense Department, combined with the possibility of emergency sessions or legislation to respond to a crisis. Throw in incendiary issues such as bribery allegations and filibusters on judicial nominations. And all in a year shortened by the presidential race and filled with distractions from that race.

I think I’ll skip “My Big, Fat, Obnoxious Fiancé.” C-SPAN will have more conflict, more drama and more pathos, even if it has lower ratings. Note to self: Get Dramamine to minimize the effects of the nausea that will come from heavy C-SPAN viewing this year.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.