House Agenda Creeps Along

GOP Handed Few Targets

Posted April 14, 2008 at 6:48pm

Clarification Appended

The House agenda appears thin even for an election year, and majority Democrats are in no hurry to send bills to die in the Senate or to provide targets for Republican sniping.

Democrats are counting on picking up seats this year, and observers say they plan to run on the strength of their accomplishments in 2007.

Traditionally, the election-year agenda is thin, especially so in presidential years. Added to the mix this year is that the Republican and Democratic White House candidates are Senators — seemingly the perfect recipe for getting even less done.

Of late, House Democrats — back in the majority after a 12-year hiatus — have begun taking bills that would normally be considered under suspension and putting them through the rules process to have something to debate on the floor.

Still, Democrats bristle at the notion that little is getting done, pointing to committee action and an upcoming push to deal with domestic issues such as housing.

This week, the House calendar is filled with bills that take small bites of big issues, including measures on student loans, tax assistance, responsible lending and expanded debt cancellation. There will be a vote on one major piece of legislation: a new farm bill or an extension of the old one.

The biggest accomplishment this year for the House was passage of the economic stimulus package. There is talk among Democrats of the need for another stimulus bill, but Republicans have balked at the idea and getting such a measure signed by the president appears is far from certain.

Democrats both on and off the Hill said a mix of factors are responsible for the lighter-than-usual election year agenda.

One issue for House Democrats is the fact that much of the legislation they passed last year languished in the Senate, and they are less apt to force their Members to take tough votes in an election year.

“They had a very productive year last year,” said Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf. “There is definitely this Senate phobia about passing things that die over there so I think people are a little more careful about what are we going to vote on that’s going to go over there and die.”

The backlog in the Senate of measures that have passed the House is nothing new.

Elmendorf, a former top aide to then-Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), said another overarching reason Democrats feel less inclined to tackle major issues this year is that they simply would rather wait for a new administration.

With political forecasts showing Democrats poised to pick up more seats in the House and Senate this fall, Elmendorf said there is little will to try to cobble together less-than-desirable legislation when the opportunity to pass a preferable version might be just over the horizon.

“You’re going to have such a big change. You’re going to have big things happen in the next Congress and we’re going to have even bigger margins on the Democratic side,” he said.

Much of what House Democrats will campaign on this fall will be their legislative accomplishments from 2007, when they passed an energy bill, ethics reform legislation, a student loan package and a bill implementing the 9/11 commission recommendations, and raised the minimum wage.

In addition to the stimulus package this year, they hope to be able to tout legislation dealing with the housing crisis and higher education, as well as other domestic spending measures that could be tackled in the upcoming supplemental. Any hope of passing appropriations bills in regular order was never a reality, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) acknowledged last week that there likely won’t be a lame-duck session later this year.

Democratic strategist Erik Smith, another former Gephardt aide, said another complicating factor for moving the Democratic agenda this Congress has been pay-as-you-go budget rules, adopted at the beginning of this Congress, that require lawmakers to fund or offset new spending.

“I think it just makes it really hard to pass things when you have to pay for them,” he said. “In previous regimes, you could just pass them without concern about having to pay for it.”

Democrats had to forgo PAYGO rules on alternative minimum tax legislation and the stimulus package, underscoring the difficulty in figuring out the politics of taking money away from one interest and giving it to another.

“PAYGO, it looms large,” Smith said. “I think if it weren’t for PAYGO, [Ways and Means Chairman] Charlie Rangel [D-N.Y.] would be passing tax bills and [Energy and Commerce Chairman] John Dingell [D-Mich.] would be passing energy bills.”

A byproduct of the slower House schedule is that Republicans have fewer opportunities to force vulnerable Democrats to take difficult votes through procedural maneuvering.

Still, Republicans are finding ways to inject their agenda into the floor discussion.

Last week, the GOP used the debate over a beach monitoring bill to complain about the high cost of gas. They plan to try to force a vote today on a tax measure by ordering the previous question during a rules debate.

Both parties charge that if the other side were willing to work together, more legislation would start moving.

“When they’re willing to work with Republicans, we can get things done for the American people,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), citing the stimulus deal as a prime example.

A Pelosi spokesman said that even though the president has signaled no interest in another stimulus package, it doesn’t mean that Democrats won’t try to produce one.

He said the Speaker’s move last week to essentially stop the timetable for a vote on the Colombia free-trade agreement demonstrates how dedicated House Democrats are to pushing forward their agenda.

“It was a calculated vote that forced a debate on the economic stimulus package,” said Nadeam Elshami.

Last week, Hoyer dismissed accusations that the House isn’t moving a legislative agenda, asserting that Democrats are addressing significant issues including the Iraq War, the housing crisis and other areas in committee hearings, although legislation might not be ready for the floor.

“That misses the point of what is being done. … Everything that we do is not done on the floor. It’s done in committees,” Hoyer said. “The Republicans have decided that they’re going to pretend that there is not a lot going on on very important issues. They just happen to not be ripe for the floor right now.”

Other Democrats echo Hoyer in arguing that much more is happening behind the scenes than is evident on the floor.

They point to House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank’s (D-Mass.) two-day hearing on a major housing bill last week.

“He wants to get it ready for markup and that takes time,” said one Democratic aide. “Frank fully intends to put up some major legislation before we adjourn.” Clarification: April 15, 2008

The article contained an inaccurate statement from House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who was misquoted in a transcript of his remarks at last week’s pen and pad. In discussing bills in committee, he said, “They just happen to not be ripe for the floor right now.”