With the Presidential election campaign well underway and many important state primaries within three weeks, few people have thought about Congress. There is perhaps some justification for this. In a major election year with the Presidency and control of Congress on the line one can expect loud and aggressive rhetoric to emanate from Capitol Hill. Whether that translates to actual work accomplished remains to be seen. Both parties may attempt to use the national platform Congress provides to address current issues along the campaign trail while stalling votes on actual legislation which addresses those issues.
Given that warning, some legislation certainly will reach the floor of the House of Representatives and the Senate for a vote. Congress returns to session this week. The Senate this month is expected to take up debate on S. 2248, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments Act of 2007. FISA allows the Federal Government to execute warrantless wiretaps on suspected terrorists abroad in order "to obtain foreign intelligence information." Last year Congress passed a temporary extension of the program, which expires on February 1. Democrats were unwilling to reauthorize the program for a longer period of time because they sought to strip from the bill immunity for telecommunications companies which had participated in President George W. Bush's warrantless domestic-surveillance program from the months following September 11, 2001. The President and some Republicans insist that the bill must be passed soon as is, while Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-NV) and some Democrats seem unwilling to do so, speaking instead about the need to defend the civil liberties of American citizens.
Congress also must address funding for the war in Iraq. Democrats have been quite outspoken in their opposition to the war, yet last year they approved $70 billion in funding for the war. President Bush asked for $196.4 billion total for the war, which means another $126.4 billion must be appropriated by Congress in the coming months. Democrats may attempt to delay this vote as long as possible. Their base remains vigorously anti-war while the war is no longer dominating the campaign trail as it was in 2006.
Other issues sure to arise but not yet on the calendar are the economy, health care and education. Both President Bush and Democratic Congressional leaders are working to create an economic stimulus package in the face of what many fear will be a recession. According to THE WASHINGTON POST, Bush is considering "a one-time business tax break to encourage investment, while Democrats are focused on additional spending to help those struggling the most." The recent problems with the subprime mortgage crisis and the slowing housing sector, the increase in the price of oil, the rise in unemployment, the sluggishness of job growth and the high trade deficit have politicians in both parties worried that the economy may begin to struggle. Because of the importance of the election, neither wants to take the blame. The question of whether the Federal Government should be involved in micro-managing the economy has gone unasked.
As I noted in an earlier column, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), President Bush's massive federal education program, was scheduled to be reauthorized last year, but differences between Republicans and Democrats over funding and accountability prevented its reauthorization. It may come to the fore this year. Also, the Bush veto last year of the State Children's Health Insurance Program brought the problem of the current healthcare market to light, with Democrats in Congress and on the campaign trail demanding universal healthcare coverage. Republicans have been uninspiring in countering the rhetoric, and Democrats may attempt to make this a focal point of the Presidential and Congressional campaigns.
How much Congress will do this year remains to be seen. I suspect the action will be limited while soundbites will be everywhere. Perhaps in the end this lethargy may be beneficial to the country, yet it is way too early to tell and much will depend upon the wisdom of the American electorate itself.