Legislative Lowdown: Week of September 5

High on the Senate’s post-recess agenda will be confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee John Roberts. A potentially tense Senate Judiciary Committee markup, followed by up to a week of floor debate and a dramatic up-or-down vote by the full Senate will dominate the Senate’s September agenda.

But the struggle over Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s successor won’t be the only show in town when Washington awakens from its summer slumber.

Many of the looming legislative battles involve spending. Meeting the spending goals adopted last spring in the annual budget resolution will require Congress to limit its seemingly insatiable appetite for new spending in several challenging ways.

Entitlement Programs

We are likely to see the first effort in a decade to scale back runaway entitlement programs. Congress agreed to shave a total of $34.7 billion over the next five years from this part of the budget. This is a rounding error in the larger context of entitlement spending, but even this modest goal will prove daunting.

The pain will be spread around. Medicaid must be trimmed by $10 billion. Another $6 billion appears likely to come from much-needed reforms of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. Even our heavily subsidized farm sector faces $3 billion in cuts.

Of course, any reduction in Medicaid’s double-digit rate of growth will provoke unyielding opposition from the special interests that feed at the Medicaid trough and from liberal organizations that promote national health care. The National Governors’ Association, however, recently weighed in with a list of useful reforms that lawmakers could embrace to take this baby step on the road to real reform.

Cutting the Pork

The budget agreement envisions a 1% reduction in federal spending in areas unrelated to national or homeland security. This will require the House and Senate Appropriations Committees and their many supplicants to restrain housing and job-training programs, Amtrak, farm subsidies, corporate pork, the National Endowment for the Arts, and other useless federal endeavors.

The need for even more restraint became apparent in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The cleanup will spawn a massive emergency-spending request, likely to exceed the $20 billion Congress appropriated to assist New York after 9/11. Will Congress offset these expenditures with reductions elsewhere in the budget, as it did in the 1990s after the Northridge, Calif., earthquake and the massive floods in the Midwest? If not, expect the budget situation to deteriorate dramatically.

Finally, this year’s budget may uncork the two-decade long effort to open up a small parcel of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and natural-gas drilling. Although environmentalists and a stubborn band of two dozen House Republicans persist in opposing drilling in ANWR, the odds are better than ever that its energy cornucopia will finally reach America’s consumers.

Also on the Agenda

If President Bush has his way, Congress will devote considerable time and effort to reforming Social Security. House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R.-Calif.) presciently believes the real issue goes beyond Social Security and encompasses the entire spectrum of retirement issues. Both Thomas and Jim McCrery (R.-La.), who chairs the Social Security subcommittee, are known for their ability to pull legislative rabbits out of a hat, so it’s too early to write off this presidential priority issue.

Meanwhile, conservatives should be wary of three bills:

  • Sen. Arlen Specter’s (R.-Pa.) asbestos-claim compensation bill, which the Senate may consider, has many flaws. But the most fatal may be its exorbitant long-term cost. According to the Congressional Budget Office, Specter’s bill would generate up to $150 billion in claims and could increase the unfunded liability of the federal government precisely when lawmakers ought to be reducing it.
  • Early this month, the Senate will consider Sen. Daniel Akaka’s (D.-Hawaii) seemingly innocuous legislation to grant Native Hawaiians Indian-tribe status. (See story, Page 1.) This bill, which inexplicably enjoys broad bipartisan support, would pave the way for an apartheid-like government without borders whereby Native Hawaiians would enjoy special rights conferred solely on the basis of their blood content. To sidetrack this, the White House will have to agree with conservative legal scholars that Akaka’s bill is a constitutional abomination and communicate that assessment clearly to Hill leaders.
  • Finally, the House may take up a reform measure designed to end the high-flying financial antics of so-called government-sponsored enterprises such as Ginnie Mae and Freddie Mac. Unfortunately, the bill lacks the required regulatory teeth to rein them in. And, as noted in my June 20 column, this legislation would steer billions of dollars to hard-left, anti-capitalistic organizations such as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).

Correction: In last week’s column, I incorrectly stated the Joint Committee on Taxation’s estimated cost of repealing the death tax. It is $300 billion, not $30 billion.