Congress’ Busy Agenda Just Got Even Busier

Posted May 4, 2010 at 5:33pm

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.

[IMGCAP(1)]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.

But if anything, the spill should demonstrate the need both to reduce our dependence on oil and to focus yet again on environmental policy. Of course, Congress needs to get to the bottom of the causes of the spill, including whether Norway’s requirement of acoustic valves on offshore equipment should be required here. But it also needs a redoubled focus on climate change and a willingness to turn to natural gas as a more environmentally safe choice for our energy as a way to reduce our consumption of and dependence on oil.

And by the way, Rush Limbaugh first suggesting that environmentalists sabotaged the oil rig to block any more drilling and then saying that nature would take care of the cleanup by itself demands another Congressional action: a joint resolution demanding that Limbaugh fulfill his public promise to move to Costa Rica if the health care bill were enacted into law.

The misguided Arizona immigration law also demands Congressional attention — and not just on immigration. I don’t blame Arizona for grappling with this problem. It is clear that Mexican drug gangs are growing more violent and more depraved, and their behavior is spilling across our borders in Texas and Arizona. They represent a threat to governance in Mexico, to the Mexican people and to our own. Congress needs to focus on ways to help Mexico battle these threats and definitely needs to find ways to beef up border security against drug lord terror. But border security is not enough to deal with our larger immigration issues, and the Arizona law is just awful — any law that has former Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) saying it goes too far is indefensible.

We do need comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for those people who have been here undocumented for more than 10 years. We are not going to round up and deport millions of people, most of whom are hardworking contributors to our society and economy. But we also need to clean up our broken visa system, making sure we expand it so people can come here legally and fill jobs where there are needs, whether temporarily or permanently, and to make sure we get a strong supply of the brightest and best highly trained people in tech, medicine and other fields to maintain our edge in innovation in the world.

Each of these issues is critical to the future of the country. They can’t be put on the back burner. It is time for some of our lawmakers to show some backbone and look for genuine cross-party solutions or at least interim steps, and not leave Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) twisting alone in the wind.

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