Tasks Undone

Posted December 10, 2004 at 12:41pm

We hate to carp, but the dear, departed 108th Congress has handed the incoming 109th Congress a whole lot of unfinished business. Given that the management of the new Congress will be the same as the old, we despair that this work won’t get done. But we’d like to be proven wrong.

Our to-do list for the next Congress includes: (1) regulation of “527” political committees; (2) overdue streamlining of the presidential appointment process, (3) completion of the modernization of America’s election machinery, (4) electronic filing of Senate campaign finance reports, (5) clarification of House ethics rules and, (6) at long last, a serious attempt to enact contingency plans for Congressional continuity after a catastrophe.

On balance, the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act has proved to be a worthy exercise. It did not, as some advocates hoped, restrain the amount of money spent on political campaigns, but that was never (in our minds) the chief rationale for it. The goal, rather, was to get federal office-holders out of the business of shaking down corporations and labor unions for soft money.

However, a huge loophole in the law permits 527 committees to collect unlimited amounts from unions, corporations and individuals to finance ads that mainly bash candidates they don’t like. The Federal Election Commission could bring 527s into line by regulation, but it has refused to do so. So Congress should pass legislation sponsored by BCRA’s original sponsors that would force 527s to obey the same rules as political action committees.

In the meantime, the onerous presidential appointments process could have been simplified had Congress adopted the House version of intelligence reform legislation, written in part by House Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.). Instead, the Senate insisted on ordering a new study from the Office of Government Ethics, whose previous report formed the basis for Davis’ proposal.

Fortunately, the 2004 election did not end up like the 2000 debacle, but Congress still needs to ensure that the states complete the modernization of election machinery authorized in 2002. New legislation also should balance the need for a “paper trail” in electronic voting with the demands of the disability community. Congress also needs to establish standards for voter identification to prevent claims of fraud and intimidation.

As it stands, House and presidential campaigns submit their finance reports electronically to the Federal Election Commission and they are instantly available online. But the recalcitrant Senate still requires paper filing with its Office of Public Records, which then has to scan the records into a computer, wasting time and money. This system makes no sense.

On ethics, after lame-duck Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas) filed a double-barreled shotgun complaint against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the House ethics committee not only admonished DeLay, but also Bell. There’s talk that House leaders want to make it more difficult for Members to file complaints against other Members. But while it’s true that the committee has become more active of late, it should not be the only originator of investigations.

Finally, leaders of both chambers remain in a state of denial over the possibility that a terrorist attack could wipe out the Capitol and paralyze Congress. We’re persuaded that a constitutional amendment is required to permit states to adopt procedures for filling vacancies. We hope that the leaders give this serious consideration and not simply dismiss it.