More than Monica and Bill

Dec. 21, 2004
Other issues face Congress as it finishes the legislative year.

Fresh from its August vacation, the 105th Congress enters its final month wondering, like the rest of the world, to what extent it will become caught up in the President Clinton-Monica Lewinsky political soap opera. So pervasive is discussion of independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr's forthcoming impeachment report that it overshadows an unusually large pile of unfinished business -- much of it important to business -- that lawmakers must deal with in a final flurry of work before their targeted adjournment Oct. 9 for electioneering. With both the scandal and the November election as backdrops, partisanship is expected to prevail over compromise in these remaining Congressional days. Thus, in sharp contrast to the productive closing days of the 104th Congress, major legislative accomplishment is unlikely. Partisan squabbling, for instance, already has put the annual budget process far behind schedule. Although the House has passed 11 of the 13 annual appropriation bills, the Senate had cleared only eight before the August recess. And Clinton threatens vetoes of at least seven of them. He is angry that the Republican-led Congress has rejected or trimmed his spending requests in such areas as education, the environment, and child care, even as it seeks to attach riders that among other things would curb abortion, block use of sampling in the 2000 census, and continue the ban against OSHA developing an ergonomics rule. Entrenched in their positions, the two sides are accusing each other of trying to provoke another government shutdown when the 1999 fiscal year begins Oct. 1. Also stalling progress on the budget has been a deadlock over taxes. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R, Ga.) proposes to use $700 billion of projected future budget surpluses for tax relief, including two business priorities -- a phaseout of the estate tax and cuts in the capital-gains tax. But Democrats are opposed. So too is the Senate GOP leadership. Partisan differences, however, are working to the advantage of business in another area -- efforts to regulate managed-health-care plans. A bitter dispute over ground rules for debate has prevented the issue from coming to the floor in the Senate and could scuttle final passage of any such legislation despite its election-year popularity. Business lobbyists are ecstatic over the House's overwhelming rejection of the "Patients' Bill of Rights" sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D, Mass.) and Rep. John Dingell (D, Mich.), which would impose a variety of mandates on employer health plans. But that measure remains alive in the Senate, where it is competing with the more moderate House-passed alternative and two other bills. Clinton promises a veto of Republican proposals. Meanwhile, business lobbyists nurse hopes for victories in these other areas:

  • Regulatory reform. Passage of the Regulatory Improvement Act sponsored by Sens. Carl Levin (D, Mich.) and Fred Thompson (R, Tenn.), which would require federal agencies to perform cost-benefit analyses and risk assessments on major rules, is a possibility. Consumer and environmental activists, however, are throwing up heavy opposition. Odds are better, as part of a larger appropriation bill, for the Mandates Information Act, which would allow any legislator to demand a roll-call vote on any private-sector mandate of $100 million or more.
  • Trade. GOP leaders in both houses plan to resurrect legislation that would renew "fast-track" trade negotiating authority for the White House, even though the bill died in the House last year due to inadequate Democratic support. But the White House hasn't joined the push, believing that chances for passage are better in 1999. Also gaining new impetus is a bill that would provide $18 billion in extra funding for the International Monetary Fund to help rescue ailing economies in Asia and Russia. To win passage, though, supporters must overcome the insistence of House Majority Leader Richard Armey (R, Tex.) that internal reforms in the agency must come first. Right-wing demands for inclusion of anti-abortion language also threaten the measure.
  • High-technology. Congress and the White House have been negotiating a compromise that would raise the cap on the number of foreign high-tech workers who would temporarily be allowed into the U.S. to ease the skills shortage. And the Senate is considering a ban on Internet taxes.
  • Securities litigation. A conference committee will meet to combine separate House- and Senate-passed bills that would create a uniform national standard for class-action securities' lawsuits in both federal and state courts. Such a standard for federal courts passed in 1995.

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