Friday, January 19, 2007

The 100-Hour Agenda Underway.

Inevitably we are now approaching the end of the first 100 hours of the new Congress. The Democrats, having seized control of both houses, made no secret about having an aggressive agenda. They outlined point-by-point the legislation they intended to pass- now it's time to evaluate their follow-through. With 57 hours to spare, the Democrats have addressed the issues bundled as "6 for '06".

Implement some of the neglected recommendations of the 9-11 commission.

- This passed 299-128 on January 9th, with 70 Republicans crossing party lines to vote with the Dems. It requires the United States to fully monitor all air and sea cargo arriving within its borders. It also redistributes homeland security funds to communities that face a higher risk for terrorism.

This seemed like a no-brainer to me- especially the latter part of the bill. It appears that a lot of federal funding was lost in what amounted to "pork barrel" spending, by congressmen seeking to boost their popularity in their own districts. It only makes sense that more resources should be shifted to places like NYC and DC, rather than Montana and Wyoming.

Raise the federal miminum wage to $7.25/hour over the next two years.

-This passed on January 10th, with a 315-116 vote (82 Republicans supported the bill). Republican Senate leaders have stated their intention to bundle small business tax cuts ($8.3 billion) with the legislation. It is expected that Senate Democrats will accept this compromise, but doubtful that House Democrats will play along with a revised bill.

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you already know my feelings about the minimum wage. Simply put- life on the current minimum wage is below the basic living standard that should be expected in a developed nation.

Expand federal funding for stem cell research.

-On January 11, congress voted (253-174) to lift the ban on federal funds for embryonic stem cell reserach. This vote was 37 short of a veto-proof majority. Dubya is certain to try to stifle this bill when it crosses his desk.

Anyone with exposure to the media would have a hard time remaining unaware of the controversy regarding stem cell research. The newest tactic on the Far Right is to claim that adult stem cells are more effective than embryonic ones. Some have even suggested that embryonic stem cells are useless for scientific or medical purposes. I'm not a biologist, so I am not going to try to assess the accuracy of these claims. Having said that... I'm pretty sure that the radio pundits I've heard discussing this issue are not scientists either.

Reduce prescription drug costs for seniors.

-Januuary 12th saw the passage of legislation (255-70) intending to curb medical costs for seniors. The idea here is to allow the government to negotiate Medicare drug costs with pharmaceutical companies. Some Republicans in the Senate would like to limit this by targeting specific drugs instead. It is rumored that Bush will veto this bill if it goes through in its current form.

Honestly, I don't have a strong position on this. I am aware that seniors pay exorbitant costs for drugs that prolong their lives. I do find it ironic that Republicans are taking (what amounts to) an anti-free market position on this issue.

Cut interest rates for student loans.

-This past Wednesday (the 17th of January) Congress voted (by a 356-71 margin) to cut student interest rates (for need-based, federally subsidized loans) in half, within five years. The cost of the bill ($6 billion) will be offset by lowering the government's guaranteed return to lenders. But this legislation may be complicated by inter-party conflict. Senate Democrats have suggested that students would benefit from an expansion of federal tuition grants.

The popularity of this measure is evident in the result of the vote. The remaining conflict resides in deciding whether or not to expand the scope of this bill. I have no problem with giving students some financial relief. However I would like this relief to be tied to public service. For instance, debt forgiveness could be extended to graduates working in jobs that benefit the "public good".

Work to minimize America's energy dependence.

-On January 18, Congress voted (264-123) to add $15 billion in new fees, royalties, and taxes for the oil industry. Apparently energy companies have been operating rigs in the Gulf of Mexico without paying billions in royalties that should have been applied. In 1989, an "oversight" in leasing contracts allowed these companies to operate in US waters without compensating American taxpayers for the public resources they extracted.

This bill is woefully insufficient in addressing necessary changes in national energy policy. There is no question that companies should be required to pay royalties on the massive profits they make exploiting the commons. Whoever was responsible for the "oversight" should face criminal consequences. But that doesn't excuse Congress from putting more significant effort into facing the increasing challenges we face regarding energy. This is the crucial issue of the future.

All of this arrives in conjunction with lobby reform in the Senate. In a rare example of cooperation (a 96-2 vote), lawmakers ended the practice of lobbyists giving gifts and travel benefits to senators. The vote also makes senators more accountable for "pork barrel" amendments that they slip into legislation.

It's obvious that the Democratic leadership in the House is off to an impressive start. They have been expedient in pushing their platform. But there are critics. The Republicans are crying foul- with claims that the Dems are not following through with promises to involve the opposition in a bipartisan effort. Yet when you look at the voting totals, it's glaring that many Republican legislators saw these proposals as moderate. Whether or not the new majority chooses to exploit its position to pursue genuine change will most likely decide the results of the 2008 elections.


Anonymous marc v. said...

In terms of the "Cut interest rates for student loans" issue, I know that we have AmeriCorps and VISTA, whereby an individual gets $4,725 for college after 1 year of service, but I always thought some kind of required term of local/regional, social service (like Germany's 2 years in military OR social service program) for high school grads that, in turn, paid for a big bundle of school would be a great thing.
Think of the millions of hours toward programs that are already undermanned and underfunded, the experience, the advantages to society. The VISTA person I know said that she didn't get paid squat for what she was doing, but that she wouldn't trade that exp. for anything. Why shouldn't we implement that on a broader scale, and make it a bit more worthwhile toward a later college education?

1:08 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

I don't know about "required", but the program sounds pretty good. I'd be worried that all the free labor provided in a mandatory program would end up putting people out of jobs. I'd like to see some "happy medium".

9:39 PM  

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