Amid Rancor, Lawmakers Passed Key Measures

110th Began With New Ethics Rules, Concluded With Economic Relief Legislation

Posted December 11, 2008 at 3:30pm

Despite partisan tensions, the 110th Congress passed several significant bills, including a massive financial bailout, an overhaul of ethics and lobbying rules and the first new fuel-economy standards in a generation.

“It may not be apparent to those who watch the daily skirmishes of the Senate from afar, but Democrats have approached every issue in this Congress with the same eagerness to find common ground. On occasion, our Republican colleagues have joined Democrats in the pursuit of progress. When they’ve chosen that path,

we have together accomplished great things for the American people,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said earlier this year.

The current Congress will most likely be remembered for a $700 billion bailout lawmakers passed in October, in response to turmoil in financial markets. The bill allows the Treasury Department to buy troubled mortgages from financial institutions and stock in financial firms to limit the global economic fallout from drops in home prices and increases in foreclosures.

Top lawmakers quickly wrote the legislation in a series of round-the-clock negotiations with the White House over several days in late September. However, House lawmakers balked at being perceived as bailing out Wall Street and caught leadership by surprise by rejecting the initial measure — a move that sent stock prices plummeting.

A few days later, the bailout measure was approved by both chambers, but only after lawmakers added new oversight provisions for managing the $700 billion. Also, “sweeteners” were tacked onto the measure, including bipartisan mental health parity legislation and extensions for a package of popular tax breaks.

“If we aren’t prepared to accept some of the things we don’t like, we will not have the power to deliver for the people we care about,” said House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who likely many Democrats argued a meltdown on Wall Street would have dire implications for middle-class Americans.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), balked at labeling the bailout bill a legislative success.

“We are going to see how it plays out going forward. Questions remain about its implementation,” Steel said.

Ethics and Lobbying

Among the first actions taken by the 110th Congress was moving legislation that tightened ethics rules for lobbyists and lawmakers. The measure mandates new reporting on lobbyists’ donations to Congressional candidates, requires the disclosure of Senate earmarks, and puts new restrictions on lawmakers and their staff in becoming lobbyists.

Senate Rules and Administration Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called the measure the “single most sweeping Congressional reform bill since Watergate.”

Several conservative GOP Senators, however, opposed it and argued the measure did not go far enough in cracking down on earmarking, particularly those added in conference negotiations.


In 2007, lawmakers also passed an energy bill that that will raise fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles for the first time since 1975. Additionally, the measure would set new requirements for developing renewable fuels and contains numerous provisions to promote energy efficiency.

“This legislation is a historical turning point in American environmental policy,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said.

But some Republicans said the measure went too far. House Energy and Commerce ranking member Joe Barton (Texas) labeled it a “mandatory conservation bill” that could harm the economy by scaling back some energy production.

Instead, GOP lawmakers said Congress’ most significant action on energy came this fall when leaders opted not to renew a long-standing federal ban on offshore oil drilling.

Electronic Surveillance

After several delays, Congress and the White House found common ground on overhauling electronic surveillance rules, known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. President George W. Bush and GOP leaders sought broader surveillance powers and immunity from lawsuits for telecommunications firms who aided in warrantless spying since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Democrats opposed both of those proposals.

Ultimately, Democrats who feared being labeled soft on efforts to crack down on terrorists agreed to the broader powers as long as they were not intentionally targeting U.S. citizens. Also, the final bill allows courts to dismiss the lawsuits provided the companies show they received assurance from the Bush administration that their actions were legal.

“The Senate ensured that our national security officials have the tools they need to help protect our country from future terrorist attacks. By passing this bipartisan bill, the Senate has taken decisive action to improve the security of our country and make our homeland safer,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said of the FISA overhaul.

Other key legislation that passed included:

• A five-year, nearly $300 billion farm bill authorizing federal agriculture and nutrition programs, despite a White House veto.

• The first major expansion of the GI bill in 25 years, extending college benefits to more veterans and their families.

• A five-year, $13 billion Amtrak authorization bill that would allow for some privatization on rail lines in the Northeast Corridor.

• A five-year, $60 billion expansion of Bush’s global plan for fighting AIDS.

• A $152 billion economic stimulus package that would provide tax rebates of $600 for most taxpayers.

Partisan tensions prevented lawmakers from action on several key pieces on legislation, including non-Defense or Homeland Security spending measures for fiscal 2009. Lawmakers clashed over Democratic attempts to increase domestic spending and GOP efforts to attach offshore oil drilling provisions to the spending bills.

Lawmakers also were unable to overcome presidential opposition to expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. House Democratic leaders, meanwhile, blocked votes on any new trade deals, despite a fierce lobbying efforts by business groups to pass a U.S.-Colombia trade pact.

Senate efforts early in the 110th Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration reform plan stalled over providing illegal immigrants a “pathway” to U.S. citizenship. And in 2008, lawmakers showed little interest in considering the contentious issue in an election year.

Congress also fell short on attempts to set a deadline for withdrawing troops from Iraq. The measure faced opposition from the White House, Republicans and even more conservative Democratic Members to a binding plan for pulling forces out of the conflict.