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Congress Must Act on Energy, Health IT to Ease Public Anger

While Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) are promising to end partisan bickering and get problems solved, their allies in Congress are back to the same old warring ways that voters hate.

[IMGCAP(1)]It appears all too likely that Congress will deadlock once again on means to reduce gasoline prices and move toward energy independence.

And even a no-brainer, widely endorsed proposal to set standards for computerizing health records — and, eventually, saving lives and lots of money — isn’t assured of passage.

It’s no wonder that, in July, Congress’ approval rating reached an all-time low of 14 percent. And, according to the Gallup Poll, only 16 percent of Americans had confidence in Congress, the lowest for any institution.

Congress’ average approval rating has risen to 17.8 percent since July, according to — probably because it’s been in recess and not reminding voters of its dysfunction.

However, this week, when Gallup asked voters whether they were satisfied or dissatisfied with the way the federal government was dealing with their problems, 79 percent were dissatisfied — 51 percent were very dissatisfied.

And, polls have a warning for the people running Congress — namely, Democrats. Gallup’s generic ballot this week showed voters favoring Democrats in the upcoming elections by only 3 points. In July, it was 11 and in February it was 15.

Energy is a tough, complicated problem intellectually, economically and politically. More on that below.

But health information technology is not. For more than a decade, it’s been widely agreed that computerizing medical records would reduce medical errors that kill up to 95,000 people a year and also save money — $165 billion a year, according to a RAND Corp. study.

There’s no disagreement among the presidential candidates — they both favor it, along with measures to prevent disease, reward providers for keeping patients healthy and manage chronic disease.

The problem is that hundreds of different IT programs have been developed without a common standard and many doctors and hospitals are afraid to invest in any one, lest it turn out to be “Beta” when “VHS” emerges as the national standard.

Bills to authorize the Department of Health and Human Services to set a standard actually passed both the House and Senate in 2005, but they got caught up in a jurisdictional dispute between House committee chairmen.

In this Congress, a bill sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), along with Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), was approved by Kennedy’s committee last year.

It was set for Senate passage before the August recess but was blocked by objections from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who argued that its $100 million cost might lead to even bigger federal outlays in the future.

Similar legislation sponsored by Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas) unanimously passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee in July. Another bill is due for markup in the House Ways and Means Committee.

The Bush administration prefers standards to be set by a private entity, not the government, but is working with Congress on the bills. And the concept has the backing of an array of groups including AARP, the Business Roundtable and the Service Employees International Union.

If this kind of legislation doesn’t get passed, what in the world can?

The public probably won’t judge Congress on the basis of health IT, but it does expect action on energy. At the rate things are going, however, it will be disappointed again — and may even be outraged — if partisan games of “chicken” result in a government shutdown.

After blocking any proposal to allow offshore oil drilling, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has yielded to public demand — reflected in the collapse of her party’s polling advantage on energy — and will include some drilling in a Democratic-sponsored energy bill.

But she also wants to remove the $22 billion-a-year manufacturing tax credit that oil companies receive and use that money to offset the cost of credits to be given to industries developing alternative energy systems.

A Democratic bill — when it finally emerges — probably can pass the House despite Republican objections to raising taxes on oil companies and limits on offshore drilling. But it can’t pass the Senate, where Republicans will filibuster.

Even the bipartisan Senate “Gang of 10” proposal — the sponsoring group is up to 22 Senators — faces a filibuster. And another deadlock exists on extending the research and development credit, credits for alternative energy and the alternative minimum tax fix.

House Democrats — especially conservative Blue Dogs — insist that the credits be paid for with offsets. Senate Republicans will filibuster any “higher taxes.” Result: prospective deadlock.

The situation could get much worse if energy and tax extenders get folded into the continuing resolution funding the government into next year, that measure fails to lift the federal moratorium on offshore drilling, and Republicans block it, shutting down federal services. There will be hell to pay.

What the two sides need to do is deal, as Members of Congress are supposed to. Democrats should agree to more drilling and Republicans to some taxes on oil companies.

One formula Democrats could offer is the one adopted in Alaska by Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin — a graduated tax on oil companies based on their profits.

And, if Obama and McCain wanted to really impress voters, they could intervene in Congress’ energy deadlock and bring the warring factions together. And make sure a health IT bill passes, too.

Of course, that would mean halting their increasingly nasty attacks on each other — a potential harbinger of continuing polarization even after one of them takes office.