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GOP Should Take a Deep Breath Before Pouncing on FISA

First, my apologies to former Rep. Bob Kastenmeier (D- Wis.) for referring to him, inexplicably (all right, the explanation is another senior moment) as William. Second, I need to give yet another nod to more good Members of Congress joining the ranks, prematurely, of the retirees — this time Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio). Congress is losing too many Members who came to Washington, D.C., to legislate and not just posture. [IMGCAP(1)]

This week in Congress, of course, is dominated by two immediate confrontations: the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. As Roll Call has reported, Republicans are relieved that FISA is moving to center stage, so they can shift the focus from why they are dissing sick and poor children along with hardworking middle-class taxpayers who can’t afford staggering health insurance costs to why Democrats stand with terrorists and against our troops in the field.

No doubt, Republicans have some political traction on FISA, but they should take a deep collective breath before pouncing. The stakes on this issue are very high — getting to the core of conservative principles about unlimited executive power. Giving a blank check to presidents and their operatives to do surveillance without a balance is truly unwise, and not worth a short-term political gain.

On this issue, Congressional Republicans have been too quick to jump on the team bandwagon and support whatever the president and vice president want without offering their own ideas to insure the right balance. And intelligence chief Michael McConnell should be very careful about his own rhetoric on this issue, if he has any concern about maintaining a relationship with the majority in Congress.

As for SCHIP, the White House ought to be sued by Congressional Republicans for political malpractice for its utter mishandling of the children’s health insurance issue — offering a plan that would cut sharply the number of kids getting insurance, allowing the agenda to be framed in terms of getting health insurance to kids and not around the issue of excessive spending, taking on a core Republican constituency, the solid middle class, and trying to promote the theme that this is a Democratic plot to expand government’s role in health care — a plot, apparently, with ringleaders like GOP Sens. Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue. As the great philosopher Casey Stengel would say, “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

The same might be said of GOP presidential candidates former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for jumping all over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) for her idea to give every child born in America $5,000 at birth to be set aside in a savings account to pay for college education, and her plan to provide matching funds and tax credits for poor and middle-class people who put some of their own money into individual retirement accounts.

I understand the impulse for GOP wannabes to bash Clinton at every turn. But to equate these ideas with former Sen. George McGovern’s (D-S.D.) plan to jump-start the economy in 1972 by giving $1,000 to every American is just plain stupid. Take the education plan first. The $5,000 figure is probably too high, and focusing only on money set aside for education is too narrow. But what Clinton is basically proposing is to make all Americans savers, shareholders and stakeholders in America, giving everybody the wherewithal to compete for jobs in the future. What would one call such an idea? Conservative! What would one call knee-jerk opponents of the idea? Not serious.

The best way to go with this notion, in my judgment, is to return to former Sen. Bob Kerrey’s (D-Neb.) great idea from a decade or so ago called “KidSave” — give every newborn $1,000, and then $500 a year for the first five years, put into stock or bond funds in individual accounts that would accumulate with compound interest until retirement. If you take that idea, with a startup cost of $4 billion, and allow up to half the money to be withdrawn at different life cycle points to help with college tuition or a house down payment, we would give a huge boost to savings and make everyone in America an asset holder. KidSave has been supported by a wide range of groups and individuals on the left and the right — even among those staunchly opposed to transforming Social Security into private accounts.

We all gain by enabling every American, including those working people who struggle day to day with no employer-provided pension, to put something significant away for retirement, even if it requires a major incentive paid by the rest of us. This is not a grant — it is a match for those with little slack in their weekly disposable income, willing to sacrifice something themselves for their long-term good. Even in an overloaded Congress, it would be nice to see the Ways and Means and Finance committees hold hearings on these ideas and others like them.

A final point about that overloaded agenda: The Congressional plate is full and overflowing, meaning a very late adjournment — and a requirement that leaders keep their Members in session more days and longer hours if anything is going to get done without cutting too many corners and making a mockery of the regular order. Rank-and-file Members will bitch and moan, but full, five-day weeks ought to be the norm, not the exception, for the rest of the year.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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