This is going to end up being rather a lengthy post; I will examine each of the major actions taken by the Senate on Friday in some detail: appropriations bills, energy bill, gun-maker liability measure, highway bill, and renewal of the PATRIOT Act (plus some odds and ends). I'll post each section as I finish it.Appropriations
: Yesterday the Senate sent the first two of eleven mammoth appropriations bills for fiscal year 2006 to the president's desk, passing the conference reports for the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act as well as the Legislative Branch Appropriations Act. The votes were 99-1 on the Interior report (Coburn voted no) and 96-4 on the Legislative bill (Coburn, Conrad, Ensign and Inhofe voted no). The House passed both reports on Thursday (votes over there were 410-10 on Interior, 305-122 on Legislative).
The Interior appropriations bill, amounting to $26.3 billion, includes a $1.5 billion emergency increase in funding for veteran's health care spending, significant cuts in EPA enforcement and incentive funds, and a $1o million grant to fund a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the National Mall.
The Legislative Affairs bill amounts to $3.8 billion, including $42 million for the Capitol Visitors Center (which is costing more than five times the original estimates).
You can check the status of all the FY06 appropriations bills here. Three others are currently headed for House-Senate conference, and the rest are at various points in the lengthy process. The most notable non-resolution this week in the Senate was on the Defense bill, which - as I have discussed at length - was pulled from the floor earlier in the week to make way for the gun-maker liability bill.
Grade: (C+) Having two approps bills complete before the August recess puts Congress ahead of its pace from the last several years. The grade is so low mainly because of the cuts in EPA funding, and due to Frist's manuever to take the DoD bill off the floor in favor of the gun bill. In a time of war, our troops should not have to wait for the vital funding needed to support their operations, and Senator Frist ought to have allowed the Senate to finish its work on the bill so that conference reconciliation could have gotten underway.
Energy Policy: After several failed attempts over the past few years, the House and Senate managed to agree on a so-called "comprehensive" energy bill this week, resulting in a 1,700-page behemoth piece of legislation offering up more than $14.5 billion in tax breaks and other incentives in coming years "
to encourage new oil and natural gas drilling, stimulate a rebirth of nuclear power and encourage development of clean-coal technologies and renewable energy sources such as wind power," according to the Associated Press
The energy bill conference report passed the House on Thursday by a vote of 275-156
, and the Senate approved the measure on Friday 74-26
. Those voting in opposition were drawn almost exclusively from the Northeast, Florida, and the West Coast. As I wrote
on Tuesday, while I'm pleased that the bill removed some of the most pernicious provisions included in earlier versions (MTBE-maker liability protection, ANWR drilling), the bill is skewed much too heavily toward providing tax breaks and other incentives to oil, gas, and coal companies, and does nothing
to wean America off its addiction to foreign petroleum products.
Good provisions adopted on a strong bipartisan basis by the Senate (one to ensure that just 10% of America's energy was coming from renewable sources by 2020, another to require the president to take steps to decrease foreign oil consumption by 1 million barrels a day over the next ten years) were gutted from the final version, and no measures to improve fuel efficiency standards or to combat global warming were included.
The final version of the bill also includes
repeal of the 1935 Public Utility Holding Company Act, which since the New Deal has "has blocked the owners of utilities from owning other companies and has prevented mergers in the electricity industry," the Washington Post
noted today. Another little-discussed provision in the energy bill, a handout to the nation's electric companies, gives "the federal government new eminent-domain powers to clear paths for power lines."
I'm sure we haven't even begun to scratch the surface of all the little provisions tucked into the gigantic bill. Who knows what will come to light once people have had a chance to leaf through the 1,700 pages. Quite a way of doing the peoples' business.Grade
: (D-). The nation certainly needs an energy policy. But we need an energy policy that is more than a Christmas tree of handouts to the oil, gas, ethanol and coal industries. We need to find ways to decrease dependence on foreign oil, seriously increase incentives for alternative energy use, combat high gas prices, and create a long-term strategy to deal with global warming. This bill does none of those. Its $12.3 billion cost (after revenue offsets) is almost double the $6.7 billion bill requested by the White House, and as Senator Russ Feingold tried to point out yesterday, probably broke the Senate's own budget rules (which the chamber voted 71-29
to waive). This is a fiscally irresponsible "grab bag" of special interest goodies, with all too few provisions that with benefit the long-term energy interests of the United States.Gun-Manufacturer Liability Shield
: After four days of debate, the Senate on Friday passed an NRA-backed bill providing
"broad liability exemption for the firearms industry that would protect gun manufacturers and sellers from lawsuits by shooting victims." This is the bill that was of such high priority that it superseded the Defense Appropriations bill for consideration on Tuesday. While I don't have a problem with the legislation - I don't believe that gun-makers should be held responsible for legally-sold
products that they manufactured - I have serious concerns about the high priority this bill was given, and I share the concerns of my friends at The Yellow Line
about the fact that the bill's main Senate sponsor, Idaho's Larry Craig, is an NRA board member. That serious conflict of interest should be of concern to all.
After beating back several amendments (and accepting one to mandate trigger-locks on all handguns sold, which passed 70-30
), Craig's bill passed the Senate 65-31
, with the support of Independent Jim Jeffords, Democratic Leader Harry Reid and thirteen other Democrats. Republicans Chafee and DeWine voted no.
This bill passed the House last year, and is widely expected to cruise through that chamber easily in September.Grade
: (B-). Decent legislation, bad prioritization. Funding our troops is of much more importance to me than protecting the gun industry, and Defense should have come first.Highway Bill
: And you thought the energy bill was a pork-barrel prize! The conference report for the "Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2005" (SAFTEA), passed by the House and Senate on Friday, contains $286.4 billion in spending, that is supposed to fund highway construction and maintenance for the next six years. Of that $286.4 billion, analysts report that more than $24 billion is destined for so-called "special projects," many of which have absolutely nothing to do with highways whatsoever.
The House passed the conference report Friday morning by a vote of 412-8, with only Republicans Boehner, Flake, Hensarling, Jones (NC), Royce, Sensenbrenner, Shadegg and Thornberry in opposition. The Senate voted 91-4 in support; Cornyn, Gregg, McCain and Kyl voted no.
Senator McCain was the only senator to speak in opposition to the conference report on the Senate floor; he gave one of those fantastic vintage McCain speeches, taking nearly a half hour (almost the full amount of time allotted, much to the chagrin of other senators looking to get out of Dodge) to discuss some of the many "special projects" lumped into the highway bill. Quoting from the speech doesn't do it justice at all, but I'll give a few samples from the prepared version:
"This monstrosity of a conference report - which costs an astounding $286.4 billion - is both terrifying in its fiscal consequences and disappointing for the lack of fiscal discipline it represents. What will it take, Mr. President, to make the case for fiscal sanity in Congress? If you had asked me years ago, I would have said that the combination of war, record deficits, and the largest public debt in the country’s history would constitute a sufficient 'perfect storm' to break Congress out of the spending addiction it is so famous for. I would have been wrong. It would seem that this Congress can weather any storm thrown at it, as long as we have our pork life-saver to cling to
. ... Some members of Congress may be happy to associate their names with this legislation – the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for example has made sure that this legislation renames the Knick Arm Bridge in Alaska 'Don Young’s Way.' The bridge would also receive more than $229 million. I want no part of this, Mr. President. This legislation is not - I emphasize not - my way of legislating. And I’m sure, Mr. President, that if we had adequate time to review this conference report we would find more pork and more inappropriate provisions. But, of course, we will once again go through this process too quickly for a proper evaluation. This conference report is over 2,000 pages long - and over six and one-half inches high - and yet we’ve had less than a day to review it
McCain listed forty of fifty of the more egregiously pork-y provisions of the bill, most of which are listed on his website
. Just a couple of those: $2.95 million to "fund the production of a documentary about infrastructure that demonstrates advancements in Alaska, the last frontier." $1 million "for a wood composite products demonstration project at the University of Maine." $1.6 million "for the Blue Ridge Music Center in Connecticut." And those aren't even the big ones. McCain also noted some of the various tax-breaks in the supposed highway bill, including one to exempt transportation provided by seaplanes from taxation. "As an old pilot," McCain said, "I guess you could land a seaplane on a highway. But that would be hard."
As the New York Times reports
today, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Don Young, Alaska's only congressman, had a very good day with this bill. His state is the sole beneficiary of a whopping 119 "special projects," at a total cost of $941 million to the American taxpayers. $230 million of that will be used to build a bridge in Anchorage to be named "Don Young's Way."
The watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense reported discovering a grand total of 6,376 pork-barrel provisions in the conference report, according to the Washington Post
. The bill rounds out at more than $2 billion over the $284 billion target sought by the White House. While President Bush had threatened to veto any bill that cost more than that amount, the Administration has now backed away from that, and Bush is expected to sign the highway legislation in the coming days.Grade
: (F). While this bill provides some
much-needed funds for actual
highway construction and maintenance, there is far too much pork in it to warrant a passing grade. The President ought to have stuck to his veto pledge and demanded that Congress abide by a bottom line. Funny how he'll only change his mind on something if it involves spending more money on pork-barrel projects! This budget-busting boondoggle bill, with its many provisions of absolutely no national relevance, should have garnered far more negative votes in both chambers, and should have gone down to ignominous defeat. This is not the way our government should be doing business.PATRIOT Act Reauthorization
: Just a little while before going to recess for August, the Senate agreed unanimously to make the vast majority of provisions in the PATRIOT Act permanent, while tightening "the requirements that must be met in order to seize business records, allow people to challenge warrants issued by the secret intelligence court, and require that the subjects of secret searches be notified within seven days unless an extension is approved by a judge," according to the Washington Post
. The Senate's version would also allow two controversial provisions of the original act (which allow "the government to conduct roving wiretaps and to demand records from institutions like libraries") to expire in four years. This version of the reauthorization bill was passed unanimously by the Senate Judiciary Committee recently, and its tightening provisions are opposed by the White House.
The House passed
a different reauthorization plan on July 21, so the two chambers will now meet in conference to reconcile the differences.Grade
: (A-). Compared to the House version, the Senate's PATRIOT Act reauthorization plan is much to be preferred. Hopefully the Senate conferees will be able to withstand pressure from the House and the White House during the conference process.Roberts Confirmation Process
: Senators Specter and Leahy of the Judiciary Committee announced late Friday night the tentative schedule for committee hearings and floor debate on the nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court. The leaders of the committee have agreed that the Judiciary Committee will hold its first hearings on the nominee on Tuesday, September 6, with a vote penciled in for September 15. Majority Leader Bill Frist said that floor debate on the nomination could begin around September 26, with a final vote sometime between then and October 1.Grade
: (A). I'm very pleased that Specter, Leahy, Frist and Reid were able to agree on this tentative schedule. It is a good timetable, that will provide ample time for committee discussion and floor debate on the Roberts nomination. I hope that all sides are able to keep to this agreement as we move forward.Final Grade
: (C+). Could be worse, but plenty of room for improvement. -- Final update, 4:44 p.m.