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Work to Do

Welcome back. We have to say, Congress has been gone for an extravagantly long time (nearly two months) considering all the work left undone from the first session of the 108th Congress. Given the unfinished agenda, plus the Bush agenda to be set forth tonight in the State of the Union address, the fiscal 2005 budget and appropriations, the rancorous partisan atmosphere prevailing around here, and extended time out for the national conventions and hopes for an early departure to campaign, we’re not optimistic that this will be an exemplary second session.

Let’s face it, Congress has done a miserable job attending to the nation’s fiscal situation — both procedurally and substantively. Granted, this Congress passed a budget resolution, while the last one (that is, the Democratic Senate) could not.

Now that Republicans control both chambers, however, the situation may have even worsened. Congress has failed to pass (count ’em) seven of the 13 fiscal 2004 appropriations bills — this is for a fiscal year that started Oct. 1. Now those bills are melded into a monster omnibus funding bill scandalously larded down with pork, even as Bush officials and GOP leaders pride themselves on alleged efforts to hold down domestic discretionary spending. Too few conservatives are raising voices in objection to the runaway spending.

The bill also offends Democrats both because of its funding priorities and also because it contains money for a voucher experiment in the District of Columbia. Democrats are also holding out the possibility of a filibuster of the omnibus since it contains a provision that would delay country-of-origin labeling of meat.

Senators have to be careful about throwing around a filibuster, especially since its success would result in ’04 funding by continuing resolution at ’03 levels, erasing all decisions about new priorities. Appropriations judgments made last year — good and bad — will simply be declared void. That’s a poor way to govern.

On the other hand, we sympathize with Members, Democrats and Republicans, who are mightily offended by the GOP leadership’s high-handed reversal of the clear will of majorities in both houses to reverse the Federal Communications Commission’s go-ahead for communications conglomerates to own more television stations and newspapers. We take no position on the merits of the FCC ruling itself, but this is a case in which GOP leaders bent to the wishes of the White House, ignored their own Members and wrote what amounts to new law in a funding bill.

Once the omnibus is disposed of, there’s a lot of work that Congress could do this year — pass a highway bill, energy reform, a tax bill to eliminate breaks for U.S. income earned abroad, tort reform, renewal of the Higher Education Act and Head Start, immigration reform and the Central America Free Trade Act. Members may want to be out of town as much as they can to campaign and raise money, but let’s face it: Most of them sit in cozily safe districts. They were elected to work here. And they should.

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