WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Last week the House and Senate did what they do best -- went on vacation, or as they euphemistically call it, a "district work period." Hopefully, while they were at home celebrating our 225th Independence Day with tee times, cookouts, fishing and fireworks, some of them reflected on their incredible inability to do the people's business. Given the snail's pace at which the 107th Congress is moving important legislation, the whole lot of them -- particularly those who "serve" in the Senate -- could well be charged with dereliction of duty.
Unfortunately for Republicans who want to blame the problem on the treachery of Jumping Jimmy Jeffords, I-Vt., and the inept "leadership" of the new Senate Majority Leader, Tom Daschle, D-S.D., this is not a new problem. Well before Jefford's June 6 defection, the senators were twisting their knickers into knots. The "World's Greatest Deliberative Body" dragged John Ashcroft through four full days of acrimonious confirmation hearings. From March 19 to April 2, they "debated" campaign finance reform as though the fate of the free world rested on placating Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold. And even though the U.S. economy was already foundering, a much-needed tax cut (that had passed the House weeks before) had to wait until April 6 for the ministrations of the Senate.
And when it comes to granting its constitutionally mandated "Advice and Consent" for executive branch and judicial appointments, the Senate is moving slower than O.J.'s search for the "real" killer. With more than 105 open seats on the federal bench, not one of President Bush's 21 judicial nominees has even been scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Critical vacancies in the executive branch have fared almost as poorly. Only 132 of the president's 315 appointees have been confirmed by the Senate. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer calls this a "Confirmation Gap" and notes that despite an abbreviated transition, "President George W. Bush has nominated more people than Bill Clinton (249), Ronald Reagan (222) or George Bush (301), yet the U.S. Senate lags far, far behind." He's right. By this point in previous administrations, the Senate had confirmed 188 of Clinton's, 147 of Reagan's and 225 of George Bush the Elder's nominees.
Daschle's spokesman places blame elsewhere: "The Republicans controlled the Senate for the first four months, then blocked a reorganization resolution for an additional month." But that argument doesn't wash when it comes to last week's Daschle-inspired slap at those who protect the independence we just celebrated -- the men and women of our armed forces.
On June 1, President Bush submitted an urgent $6.5 billion emergency supplemental spending request and asked Congress that it be passed before the July 4 recess. The commander in chief said $5.5 billion is essential for the purchase of ammunition, fuel for flight operations, pre-deployment training, emergency spare parts, critical personnel transfers, pay and military health-care costs. The House passed the measure 341-87 on June 20. Not exactly a close vote.
But when Tom "I'll Throw A Snit If I Don't Get My Way" Daschle looked at it, he decided it was time to play politics with the lives, welfare and safety of 1.3 million soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and their families. Daschle didn't have time for the troops. But he did make sure the Senate took time to acknowledge West Virginia's 138th birthday, to congratulate the Los Angeles Lakers and the Colorado Avalanche for their respective world championships, to "commemorate 20 years since the first diagnosis of AIDS" and to fritter away two weeks of the legislative calendar debating the John McCain-Ted Kennedy concocted "Patients Bill of Rights."
Late on the night of June 29, when it was too late to act on the emergency needs of our military, the Senate finally voted 59-to-36 for the so-called Patient Protection Act. Daschle paused on the way to the airport to congratulate himself for having achieved a "bipartisan consensus" on a measure that President Bush has said he will veto because it will lead to "unlimited litigation in state courts" and "drive up premium costs and cause many American families to lose their health insurance." How's that for "doing the work of the people!"
Republican leader Trent Lott tells me that he's hopeful things will change when the Senate returns to "work" on July 9. It may be wishful thinking. Daschle isn't talking about emergency funding for national defense, executive branch appointments or judicial vacancies. Instead, he's spewing hot air about global warming. And while the new Senate leader claims that national energy problems are "near the top, if not at the top" of issues he wants to address while he sits on his Senate throne, he has yet to put an energy bill on the Senate's legislative calendar.
Two and a quarter centuries ago this past week, young Tom Jefferson presented his final draft of the Declaration of Independence to 55 of his colleagues in the Continental Congress. It's a good thing he didn't have to make his presentation to Tom Daschle and the other 99 who now serve in our Senate. They would still be debating the issue -- and before each baseball game we'd all rise to sing "God Save the Queen."