Congress Near You

Ask and Ye Shall Receive? Changes Coming to a Congress Near You!

Outrage at Congress’ actions is nothing new, and this year it’s even worse than normal. Let’s face it, between the bitter partisan infighting, the incessant filibusters, and still more earmarks than you can shake a hypothetical line-item veto at, who can blame you for such high displeasure at Congress. If someone could come up with a surefire way to tackle this partisanship in Congress, they could become very rich indeed; it seems as if nothing short of a miracle or an extreme disaster would engender any major substantive bipartisanship these days. The filibuster will prove to be a bit easier to reform, though it will still be a difficult one to crack, especially given the slim majority the Democrats enjoy in the Senate. Even when they had their 60 votes, that was not technically enough to force a reduction in the power of the filibuster on their own, as all Senate rules changes require 67 votes. Of all these points of displeasure, the earmark problem seems to be the easiest to deal with, especially since it is a point of reform that pops up every year or so. Well, if certain Congressional leaders have their way, at least two of these three perceived problems with Congress are about to change.

Let us start with the easiest to discuss: earmark reform. According to the New York Times, both the Democratic and Republican caucuses in the House of Representatives have decided to pursue a ban on earmarks at least for this year. Makes sense to me, especially since both parties can try to profit politically off of this in the midterm elections. Apparently, the Democrats were first, with Rep. David Obey (D-Wisconsin), Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, announcing that there would be a ban on earmarks going to for-profit companies. House Republicans, on the other hand, are reviving Rep. John Boehner’s idea of a complete ban. With the blatant attempts at political one-upsmanship, it is obvious that the partisan fighting in Congress is not ending any time soon. However, there is a glimmer of hope at these signs: it is that both parties are serious about making reforms.

According to the Huffington Post, the event that kick-started the push to ban earmarks for the year was a series of Ethics Committee investigations that alleged abuses of the process by various people in government. Though the Committee acquitted the individuals at the center of the investigation, Democrats are using this as a way to score points with the electorate, especially after the scandals around Reps. Eric Massa and Charlie Rangel damaged the Democrats’ image among voters. It will certainly help with their image if they can be seen as the ones taking a stand against the earmarks- which is exactly why the Republicans are trying to steal their thunder. Personally, I don’t care how it gets done and who takes credit for doing it, as long as it gets done.

But not so fast. Even if the House acts, the Senate is not bound by their declarations; in fact, Representative Obey’s counterpart in the Senate, Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), is a supporter of earmarks, though I would suspect in a limited manner, at least publicly. Thanks to the conference Committees that form after both houses of Congress pass legislation on a given topic, earmarks are another thing that will need to be ironed out. This likely means that the plan to reject earmarks in the House is near-worthless, as the Senate has no negotiating room at all at this time. Fortunately, earmarks are just the beginning.

Enough with the filibusters already!
That is, in effect, what Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is saying at this point according to Talking Points Memo. However, in true government form, he is only talking of holding hearings on how best to approach the issue at this point. That is fine with me, especially since this was following Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s announcement that Senate Democratic leaders would be looking at the filibuster next year, at the start of the 112th Congress. This brings up an interesting point: Reid thinks he has figured out a way around the normal rule requiring changes to the Senate rules to take 67 votes to pass. The Huffington Post reports that by doing it at the start of the next Congress, Senate Majority Leader Reid can call on Vice-President Biden, who has already spoken out about the abuses of the filibuster, as President of the Senate to declare that the Senate can legally draft new rules. Presumably, this would include the idea Reid has come up with: further changes to the rules would only require a simple majority. This could get very interesting to watch if the Democrats manage to retain control of the Senate following the midterm elections this November. I am not sure about the problem of partisanship in Congress, but at least the other two major issues with that august body are being addressed.