The Fly-by-Night 107th

As the 107th Congress limps into the midterm elections without having passed most of its routine spending bills, it's safe to say that the legislative branch hasn't been a model of efficiency. But, then again, there are worse things than gridlock. The GOP had big plans in 2000 for its House-Senate-White House axis. Those designs were frustrated by Sen. Jim Jeffords' (I-Vt.) defection and then marginalized by the war on terrorism. But we know what those deferred dreams look like: weakened unions; privatized Social Security; an increasingly religious public sphere; a financial sector trusted to police itself; further deregulation of utilities; and the dwindling of welfare benefits, public-health safeguards and access to abortion.

Some of this philosophy surfaced in debates over the tax cut, campaign-finance reform or corporate reform, all of which became law. Other elements of the Republican manifesto are more quietly working their way toward law. Many are included in bills that have already passed the House and moved on to the Senate, where the most extreme provisions are more likely to be ignored or tempered. But Republican control of the Senate would make passage of such legislation all the more likely. Here are a few examples:

Welfare reform and "healthy marriages." Back in May, the House passed a welfare-reform proposal nearly identical to the "70-40" plan the Bush administration had announced in February. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio), required that states that do not have 70 percent of families receiving welfare benefits working at least 40 hours a week by 2007 will be punished by having their block grants cut. To the extent that the plan received attention, which wasn't much, critics focused on its strict and counterproductive work requirements, rules that discouraged investment in training or education and encouraged states to simply cut off families rather than to help them find work.

But besides endangering the fragile success of the 1996 Clinton welfare-reform bill, the House tacked a "healthy-marriages" provision onto the bill, allocating $300 million to pro-marriage grants. The money could be spent on anything from counseling sessions to television commercials and lectures to extra welfare benefits for those couples who stay married. In short, this provision was a form of marriage insurance -- federally funded, no less -- that conservatives could love. Aside from the galling intrusion into private life that it represents, there's the question of why money ostensibly earmarked for welfare benefits should be spent on television time and high-school abstinence lectures. The Senate has yet to vote on its counterpart measure.

Unable to come to an agreement on the bill, Congress has passed a continuing resolution preserving the status quo through the end of the year. After that, says Mark Greenberg, director of policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy, "There are still a million possibilities," maybe a three-month, one-year, three-year or (though unlikely) five-year extension. If Congress does go for something more long term, Greenberg thinks the parties would want to "reduce the number of issues in dispute" -- an important goal in every healthy marriage. That means compromise language on the marriage-promotion grants: either limiting the amount of money or restricting the ways in which it could be spent.

What's good for General Motors is good for Homeland Security. Eighty-five percent of the country's critical infrastructure -- for example, power and chemical plants, ports, banks and electricity grids -- are privately owned. The utility, phone and gas companies that own it, however, have proven reluctant to give up detailed information to the proposed Department of Homeland Security for fear, they say, that any plans would find their way into the hands of potential saboteurs, terrorists or even curious competitors. To address this fear, the House's Homeland Security bill exempts any information pertaining to "the security of critical infrastructure and protected systems" from the Freedom of Information Act, which requires that federal agencies release information to anyone who requests it in writing.

There are, however, plenty of people besides terrorists and competitors who might have questions about critical infrastructure: environmentalists worried about a polluting chemical plant, for example, or labor activists investigating an unsafe factory. One easy way to prevent them from getting such information is to designate it "Critical Infrastructure Information" (CII). Gary Bass, of OMB Watch, an organization that monitors the federal budget and regulatory processes directed by the White House Office of Management and Budget, offers another example: "Imagine that you are a company that takes credit card [numbers] over the Internet, and there was a virus in your system so that all the credit cards became public. You can stamp all of that information CII and turn it over to the government, so no action can be taken on it."

The White House, which originally suggested the exemption, insists it is actually quite narrow. But the fact is that, unlike the Senate version of the bill, neither the White House nor the House of Representatives bothers to specify what constitutes a security issue, as opposed to an environmental or labor issue. Both prefer simply to trust the companies themselves to make the call. "Amazingly enough," says Bass, "this was thought up post-Enron."

Faith-based Firing. When the president announced his faith-based initiative, with its "charitable-choice" provisions greatly increasing the array of federal grants available to religious organizations, critics drew the alarming image of soup kitchens ladling out religious homilies along with meals in what would amount to government-sponsored proselytizing.

Less discussed was the question of whether government funding should affect religious charities' ability to hire and fire on the basis of their beliefs. The administration and the House contend that funding shouldn't affect the charities hiring-and-firing practices. In fact, the J.C. Watts-sponsored House bill expressly exempted religious organizations receiving federal funds from having to comply with local and state antidiscrimination laws. As a recent lawsuit brought by two therapists from a Methodist children's home in Georgia shows, this question isn't merely academic. One of the therapists charges that he was refused a job because he is Jewish, the other that she was fired because she is a lesbian. The Senate version of the bill has no "charitable-choice" provisions and might eventually include specific antidiscrimination language.

Chipping away at choice. Here, not surprisingly, was where the difference between the Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate was drawn most vividly. The House voted twice against overturning a ban on any abortions in overseas military hospitals (even when the servicewoman in question would pay for the abortion herself); passed a bill making it a federal crime for anyone other than a legal guardian to transport a minor across state lines to get an abortion; and, most recently, approved a bill allowing hospitals, HMOs and insurance companies to keep their federal funding even if they refuse to perform, provide referrals for or pay for abortions. The Senate either refused to consider or voted down all of the above bills.

Of course, the House has always been the more mercurial of the two chambers of Congress, and in the Senate the minority is not so easy to steamroll. But there are plenty of Republican senators who support all of the above ideas. Indeed, back when he was majority leader, Trent Lott (R-Miss.) was stopped from bringing similar abortion bills to a Senate vote solely by the threat of a Clinton veto. In the end, there's not much for the rest of us to do but vote and watch and wait. If Republicans net a single Senate seat in the elections this fall, they'll be able to start the 108th Congress where they left off in June 2001, when Jeffords left the GOP and tilted the Senate majority to the Democrats.

Drake Bennett is a Prospect writing fellow.

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