The Week in Review

Posted March 16, 2007 at 2:05pm

In what some called a “sunshine week,” the House passed laws that would require greater access to presidential records, protection for whistleblowers and, despite veto threats from the White House, a limit on the awarding of no-bid contracts.

On Wednesday, the House passed H.R. 1255, the Presidential Records Act Amendments of 2007. The bill seeks to overturn a 2001 executive order by President Bush that allows current and former presidents and vice presidents to withhold presidential records or delay their release indefinitely. It passed 333-93, well above the two-thirds necessary to sustain a promised presidential veto.

Also on Wednesday, the House passed the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (H.R. 985). Citing failures to expose faulty intelligence about pre-war Iraq, the bill would grant most federal employees the right to have their claims heard in federal court and protects federal employees who expose waste, fraud and corruption through their chain of command. Employees of federal contractors, airport screeners and government scientists facing retaliation for objecting to political influences are also covered. The bill passed with a similarly wide margin, with 102 Republicans joining all Democrats, 331-94.

On Thursday, the House passed the Accountability in Contracting Act (H.R. 1362). The legislation would limit no-bid contracts to no longer than one year and would require agencies that spend more than $1 billion a year on federal contracts to minimize their use of sole-source contracts. Despite the administration’s claim that it would complicate their efforts to make contracting more competitive, the bill, which now goes to the Senate, passed 347-73.

Democrats cited figures showing that the Bush administration awarding of sole-source contracts, in which there is no competitive bidding, grew from $67 billion in 2000 to $145 billion in 2005.

“This surge in contract spending has enriched private contractors like Halliburton but it has come at a steep cost to taxpayers through rising waste, fraud and abuse and mismanagement,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who chairs the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The Bush administration opposed the plan, warning that the restrictions would restrain the government’s “ability to tap the technical expertise of federal employees who are former contractor employees.”

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the ranking member on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said it was unfair to “pass onerous restrictions based on the misdeeds of a handful of employees.”

Some lawmakers chastised Republicans for failing to properly oversee the awarding of federal contracts when they were in control Congress. This upset former Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), who said, “When you are fighting a war you need to move quickly. … You don’t give a six-month appeal to the folks who lose competitions.”

In the meantime, after two and a half weeks of sometimes contentious debate, the Senate passed legislation implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 commission and then rejected a resolution that sought the redeployment and eventual of U.S. troops in Iraq.

On Tuesday, the Senate voted for final passage of a bill that would implement some of the recommendations of the 9/11 commission. The legislation, Improving America’s Security by Implementing Unfinished Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 (S. 4), passed on a roll call vote, 60-38.

Democrats unanimously voted for final passage but several Republicans voted against the bill to protest an amendment which they felt weakened America’s security.

The amendment, offered last week by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), offered federal screeners at airports collective bargaining rights, but would allow the Department of Homeland Security to waive them during a national emergency. It was adopted on a party line vote, 51-48.

The Bush administration disapproved of the McCaskill amendment and has threatened to veto the bill over the collective bargaining requirement.

The bill’s passage was delayed by a host of amendments that were ultimately ruled non-germane. Additionally, several amendments were adopted by unanimous consent this week while only three amendments were voted on by a roll call vote.

One amendment, offered by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), provided that all provisions would expire on Dec., 31, 2012. It was tabled, 60-38, on a roll call vote.

Coburn also offered an amendment that would ensure the fiscal integrity of grants awarded by the Homeland Security Department. It was tabled, 66-31, on a roll call vote.

Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) offered an amendment requiring the Homeland Security Department to develop regulations regarding the transportation of high-hazard materials, and for other purposes. It was tabled, 73-25, on a roll call vote.

Later in the week, Senate Democrats continued their push for a vote on a non-binding Senate resolution to express opposition to the current strategy for the Iraq War.

On Wednesday, Republicans agreed to a motion to invoke cloture on the motion to proceed to consider S.J.R. 9, a joint resolution to revise United States policy on Iraq, offered by Reid. It called for the redeployment and eventual withdrawal of troops in Iraq. The resolution was rejected, 89-9, on a roll call vote.

Reid’s resolution was debated concurrently with two other resolutions.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), offered a resolution expressing the sense of Congress that no funds should be cut off or reduced for U.S. troops that would result in undermining their safety or their ability to complete their assigned mission. It passed, 82-16, on a roll call vote.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), offered a resolution expressing the sense of the Senate that no action should be taken to undermine the safety of U.S. forces or impact their ability to complete their assigned or future missions. It passed, 92-2, on a roll call vote.

The Senate finished business on Thursday evening and will stand in recess until Monday.