Unfinished Business

As Senators leave Washington for the annual August recess – affording us time to go back home to meet with constituents and attend to other business – a lot of work has been left undone.

Though the Senate has had some success this year in passing legislation dealing with counterterrorism, corporate accounting abuses, and protecting America’s borders from terrorist infiltration, many other important issues have been neglected. And that is disappointing.

In fairness, it is hard to pass legislation in a narrowly-divided Senate – particularly during an election year. But that is no excuse for the failure to make significant progress on a whole host of critical issues, including:

o Prescription Drug Coverage for Seniors: The failure of the Senate to act on this important benefit for our senior citizens is inexcusable. Every Senator supports more affordable prescription drugs, but the majority leadership configured the process to frustrate any chance of passing an acceptable compromise. By contrast, the House of Representatives passed a prescription-drug plan – as President Bush requested – back in June. There is still a chance to do this in September, but prospects are not good.

o Appropriations bills: One of the top priorities of the national legislature is the annual approval of operating expenses for the federal government. There are 13 appropriations bills that must be approved this year, including a measure that would fund border-security legislation authored in response to the September 11 attacks. The Senate, however, has only passed three of these bills so far this year – and the new fiscal year starts October 1.

o Budget: For the first time in 28 years, the Senate majority failed to pass a budget resolution -- even though the Senate is required to do so by law! It is difficult enough to exercise fiscal discipline in Congress with a budget plan: it’s even harder without any budgetary framework at all.

o Homeland Security: The House of Representatives passed a plan for a new Department of Homeland Security -- a top priority of President Bush – before going on its August recess. The Senate majority leader did not even bring a bill to the Senate floor until the day the Senate recessed -- too late to do anything but have the clerk read it.

o Judges: Nearly half of President Bush’s 116 judicial nominees still await Senate action -- many languishing in limbo for more than a year. The reason: pure politics. The Senate majority simply doesn’t want to approve President Bush’s nominees, especially to federal circuit courts.

This is not an impressive record – and it falls far short of what was accomplished by the House of Representatives.

What explains the Senate’s delay? In part, the answer is ideological. The majority prefers to keep issues from a Senate vote because it knows many of those proposals would get a majority of support. They also believe it’s better to have an issue than a solution in an election year.

In some cases, the answer is simply poor management of the Senate agenda. Because of the short amount of time left before the Senate adjourns for the year, the chamber now will have to rush through deliberations on many of these important matters (such as the appropriations bills) and give short shrift to others (such as considering and voting on judges). Rushing through spending bills often guarantees that wasteful pork spending will soak up taxpayer dollars, since Senators will not have the time to give these measures the proper scrutiny.

It does not have to be this way. When the corporate accounting scandals grabbed national headlines, the House and Senate acted quickly – and in a bipartisan way – to pass tough legislation that cracks down on fraudulent activities by CEOs. The same thing happened with anti-terror legislation offered after the September 11 attacks.

This should be the rule, not the exception. A popular outcry should not be necessary before the Senate gives prompt consideration to the needs of the American people.

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