What the Lame Duck Left Behind

Posted December 12, 2008 at 5:22pm

Some legislators returned to Capitol Hill last week with something more than the automaker bailout in mind.

By the time they turned out the lights on Thursday, 33 House bills, 28 Senate bills, two House resolutions, nine Senate resolutions and three joint or concurrent resolutions had been introduced, many with little hope of becoming law.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), for instance, contributed a solution to solve a problem on everyone’s minds: NCAA football’s Bowl Championship Series.

“The BCS system of determining America’s top collegiate team was established in 1998 and has been plagued by controversy almost ever since,” the Texas Republican said on the House floor on Wednesday. “In some years, the sport’s national championship winner was left unsettled, and at least one school was left out of the many millions of dollars in revenue that accompany the title. Despite repeated efforts to improve the system, the controversy rages on.”

Barton, a Texas A&M alum, proposed a bill that would kill the BCS by outlawing the promotion of any national championship that is not the result of “a single elimination post-season playoff system for which all NCAA Division I [Football Bowl Subdivision] conferences and unaffiliated Division I FBS teams are eligible.” That would disqualify the current system in which a computer program chooses the two teams to play in the championship.

The regulation of sports falls under Barton’s purview as ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, where the bill was referred after he introduced it. Unfortunately, that was where the bill — not the system — withered away, as the committee’s only scheduled hearing was postponed.

Barton’s bill wasn’t the only one tied to the season. Other time-sensitive resolutions would declare Dec. 13 “Wreaths Across America Day,” Jan. 2 “National Advertising Specialty Day” and January “National Mentoring Month.”

Some items passed easily. With Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) as his sole co-sponsor, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) introduced a resolution that would allow workers in Senate buildings to collect items for charity during the holidays. It passed by unanimous consent on Monday.

Likewise, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) each introduced resolutions on Tuesday that expressed sympathy for the victims of the Mumbai, India, attacks in late November. Both had passed by mid-week.

Other items didn’t fare as well. With the help of six co-sponsors, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) introduced a resolution expressing disapproval of the military operation in Iraq, which she said lacks the support of the American people. The bill died in the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) was feeling travelers’ pain when she introduced a bill that would require airlines to report reasons for tarmac delays of international flights originating abroad. Schmidt introduced a similar bill in June 2007 that would require the same of domestic flights, and that was ultimately incorporated into the Federal Aviation Administration’s rules, according to her communications director, Bruce Pfaff. Schmidt was motivated to take it one step further when she read about a flight from San Salvador, El Salvador, to Los Angeles that was rerouted to a smaller airport about an hour’s drive east because of fog and sat on the tarmac there for nine hours.

Some bills introduced during the lame-duck session reflected the local concerns of individual legislators. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) wasted no time introducing a bill that would block funds from being used to transfer prisoners at Guantánamo Bay to the U.S. military’s only maximum-security prison in Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) stirred up the controversy when he introduced a bill in May 2007 that would close Guantánamo and move the prisoners to Fort Leavenworth.

Brownback spokeswoman Becky Ogilvie said her boss was motivated by the increasing importance of the Guantánamo Bay issue as President-elect Barack Obama transitions into office. She didn’t want to speculate on whether it would pass this year but said that if it doesn’t, Brownback will reintroduce it in the new Congress.

Not all locally focused bills were so intense. Brownback also introduced a resolution to honor the Smith Center High School football team, which capped off an undefeated season by winning its fifth consecutive state championship in Kansas. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) honored the Congressional tradition of naming buildings after colleagues by introducing a resolution to name a new federal building in Canton, Ohio, the “Ralph Regula Federal Building.” Regula is retiring from the House after 36 years in office.

Two Members introduced legislation that would penalize hawkers of fake inauguration tickets. However, by the end of the week, neither bill had emerged from committee. It appeared to be more evidence that pushing a low-profile bill during a lame-duck session is like standing outside in the freezing rain while the game is played under the Dome.