Pick the low-hanging fruit

Posted: Mar 03, 2005 12:00 AM
Finally, Washington is showing signs of progress. After years of partisan bickering, federal lawmakers once again may be able to mount a bipartisan effort to address real problems effectively.

Consider the Senate. It?s one-for-one this term, having voted on an important tort reform measure and passed it overwhelmingly.

The Class Action Fairness Act is a sensible step in the right direction. It will guarantee every American retains the right to a day in court, but will crack down on frivolous class-action lawsuits. Under the terms of the bill, such suits will be moved from state courts into federal ones. And plaintiffs will be protected from excessive attorney?s fees.

This bill has been knocking around Congress for years. Similar measures passed the House of Representatives in each of the last three sessions, but a minority in the Senate repeatedly used parliamentary maneuvers to block the bills. That?s why it was such a relief to see the popular legislation finally come up for a vote and sail through the Senate, 72-26.

But tort reform isn?t the only popular measure stalled in the Senate. That?s why lawmakers ought to extend their modest winning streak by moving quickly to tackle other issues.

Consider welfare.

Back in 1996, lawmakers agreed to the most sweeping changes in decades. Because of that overhaul, millions of people have moved from welfare to work. As a result, some 3.5 million people -- 2.9 million of them children ? have slipped the bonds of dependency and poverty.

The ?96 legislation limited welfare payments, so people could no longer live on the dole for years and years. Since then, welfare caseloads have been cut by 60 percent. At the same time, according to the Department of Agriculture, hunger among children has been cut in half. So the law?s been a rousing success.

Still, there?s much more to do. According to Heritage Foundation experts Robert Rector and Patrick Fagan, more than half of the 2 million mothers currently on welfare are not engaged in constructive activities that will lead to self-sufficiency. Lawmakers should strengthen federal work requirements to ensure all able-bodied parents are looking for work, doing community service or training for employment.

Congress also should take steps to encourage and strengthen marriage, since study after study proves that the best way to reduce child poverty is to raise children in a healthy, intact family. Current welfare policy continues to penalize marriage. It?s time to fix that, once and for all.

In addition, the Senate also should take action on a long-delayed energy

Four years ago, President Bush proposed a measure to increase domestic supplies of crude oil and natural gas, improve our outdated electricity grid, open new nuclear power plants and promote energy conservation.

Over the years, portions of the bill have been debated and stalled in the Senate. For example, lawmakers have bickered over whether to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Well, with oil prices soaring, we definitely need to increase our domestic production. Drilling in ANWR will do that. The Senate should have an up-or-down vote on ANWR -- and a complete energy bill -- as quickly as possible.

This is almost certain to be a divisive year on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers face thorny debates over the future of Social Security, whether or not to fix the fatally flawed Medicare bill and how to improve our tax code.

Before that work begins, it would make sense to pass the measures that most of us agree on. By picking the low-hanging fruit -- welfare reform and an energy bill -- now, Congress can build momentum for the difficult decisions that are coming.