This Week on Capitol Hill

The Week of July 13

The floors of Capitol Hill are busy with spending matters this week. While the House churns through two more of its twelve spending bills for fiscal year 2010 - a $33b Energy and Water bill and $24b for Financial Services - senators will wade into lengthy debate over the $690b defense authorization bill, HR 1390. The "authorization" bill doesn't write the check for the military ("appropriations" bills do that), but it does okay what can go into an appropriations bill for next year. One budgetary item that will slow up passage is a $2b allotment for F-22 fighter planes: the Pentagon says it doesn't need the extra planes; the administration doesn't want to pay for them; but lawmakers in the homestates that build F-22s are pushing to buy them anyway.

But the main action will be happening off the chamber floors: in the media hotspot senators will grill the almost-certain-to-be-next Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, while in the back rooms of Congress lawmakers continue to wrangle over a formula for health care reform.

Ongoing Stuff

A lot has happened since the Obama team came to Washington in January. The challenges that looked big during the campaign (ending wars, tackling health care reform, passing global warming legislation and reworking civil liberties) looked like kid stuff compared to the economic meltdown faced by the new administration (and the 111th Congress) by the time they took over. 

Lawmakers passed a ginormous stimulus bill designed to stoke the economy, a bill that rolled in a number of Obama's favorite initiatives, such as investment in green energy, middle class tax cuts, and computerizing health records. Other economic items that moved quickly included comprehensive mortgage reform, restructuring the auto-industry to save the "big-three" from bankruptcy, a second round of assistance to the financial industry (along with some tighter oversight of the program).

Passing laws doesn't automatically "do" anything, of course. It remains to be seen how well admin agencies are able to implement the new policies and what results they get. Sometimes Congress has to tweak an agency's regulatory authority or make other amendments to laws as logistical stuff comes up. We will keep our eyes and ears peeled and our "issue" pages updated.

Below is a tally of some of the agenda items that are either already checked off or are still in the works and might be up for a vote in either/both houses of congress in the next couple of months.

"Economic Recovery" - aka stimulus - bill: Congress' highest priority - and highest profile - order of business was crafting and passing a $787 billion public investment and tax-break bill that it hopes will give life to the fast flagging economy. 

Regulating Wall Street: No one's saying how exactly, but the mood on Capitol Hill and in the White House is that Wall Street will have to be tamed this year. The administration is pushing for a plan to be outlined before the world's top 20 leaders convene in April to revisit the global financial crisis. Expect new rules for lenders, insurers and investors alike - and greater oversight from the Fed. (NYT, WP)

Budgeting: Also high on Congress' to-do list, though with considerably less fanfare, is polishing off a budget for '09. That little item was left over by the last Congress; rather than contend with President Bush over the budget's pricetag, lawmakers figured they'd hold off for a president that was more likely to sign off on their budget priorities. Fiscal conservatives on both sides of the aisle may also push through pay/go legislation this year - making it the law that all budget additions have to be accounted for with cuts or revenue raisers elsewhere in the budget.

"Fiscal responsibility summit": The administration isn't letting a little thing like economic collapse get in the way of trying to rein in America's raging deficit problem. Obama has asked for a summit in March to look at entitlement spending, the tax code and our spending habits to nudge us toward a time of balanced budgets. He'll need all the luck he can get. As WaPo says, it's a "holy grail" no president has been able to grab before (well, excluding all those dotcom boom Clinton years).

Fair pay: In 2007 Congress tried to reverse a Supreme Court decision - the Lilly Ledbetter case - that made it difficult for women (and other groups) to sue for pay discrimination. Lawmakers had an easier time this year, with the House and Senate readily passing legislation that extends the statute of limitations on pay discrimination suits - and the president signing off on the bill in January. (WP, NYT)

I want my DTV - a little later: If you have an analog (rabbit ear) TV, you may be happy to know that the original deadline to get a digital converter - February 17 - has been pushed back to June 12. The federal government is handing out vouchers for the converters, but it ran into trouble getting them out in time (and has run out of cash), forcing Congress to push for a delay in the transition and pay up $600 million more (which it'll include in the stimulus bill). (WP)

Health: Major health care reform probably won't go anywhere until late '09 or '10, but Congress kicked off the year by adding funding for SCHIP (state run programs for low income kids) (WP). As part of the '09 stimulus package, lawmakers also made a push to get medical records out of filing cabinets and into electronic databases, in addition to giving states temporary relief to help pay for Medicaid and expand coverage to the recently unemployed. Finally, lawmakers could okay the reimportation of drugs, while giving the Medicare the power to negotiate down drug prices.

Housing: In tandem with an administration plan to use TARP bailout funds to help out homeowners in hock, Congress may vote to give bankruptcy judges the power to order restructured mortgages.

Immigration: Wholesale immigration reform may be temporily off the table (in no small part because demand for immigrant labor has dried up), but a liberal favorite, the DREAM Act, could come up in early '09. The act gives kids of illegals the option to study in the US and work toward citizenship.

Renewable electricity: A number of proposals in Congress are popping up to mandate that a certain percentage of electricity come from renewable energy, but the exact percentage varies - from 15% to 25% - calling into question whether lawmakers will be able to agree on a final number.

Stem cell research: Having already voted to open up funding for stem cell research - which got vetoed by President Bush - Congress now has a green light to nix the ban on federal support for the controversial research. It may, however, defer to President Obama who could lift the ban by an executive order.

Unionizing: Labor advocates got stymied last year in their efforts to push through a "card check" bill that would let unions organize by signing up members without the hassle of a secret ballot. Although unions have a more friendly congress and administration this year, their bill still may get sidelined by other economic priorities.

Credit cards: In May, Congress passed a bill HR 627 that would keep credit card companies in check, limiting a number of practices that consumer advocates long complained about.

Cigarettes: HR 1256, passed in June, gave the FDA the power to regulate cigarettes - including what goes in the death sticks as well as what goes on their packaging. (WP)

On the Executive Side

Obama won't have to wait for Congress to roll back some of the Bush administration's policies. Here are a few regulatory changes Obama is expected to make swift work of.

Pregnancy stuff: The Bush administration okayed a last minute rule protecting health workers who refused to participate in abortion or contraceptive procedures. Obama is expected to nix that new rule, although it may take a few months to take effect. (NYT) The new administration also quickly reversed a rule that banned funding to international health organizations that perform or talk about abortions. (WP)

Closing Gitmo: One of Obama's first acts in the White House was an order to close Guantanamo, which still holds on to about 250 detainees. The order was initially expected to take about a year - with the cooperation of foreign nations and US districts - to relocate all the prisoners. The plan ran into an unexpected roadblock recently, when Senators of both parties denied Obama's request for $80 million to implement it. Democrats want the president to articulate more details on the relocation plan before they commit to funding the process. Republicans generally oppose the plan itself.  

Early on, Obama had suspended the Bush-era military tribunals set up to try enemy combatants, but he recently reinstated them with revised trial procedures. The new rules ban the use of hearsay evidence and evidence obtained through torture. They also give the prisoners more control over selecting their lawyers and the right to refuse to testify. Reviving the tribunals might further delay plans to close Gitmo. 

Obama has also issued an order ending the CIA's special "interrogation" methods and began declassifying the Justice Department legal memos relied on by the Bush administration in authorizing them.