109th Congress: Goodbye, Farewell and Don't Let the Door Hit You...

This article originally appeared in the Messenger Post Newspapers of upstate New York.

The 109th Congress is dead. Adjourned for good.

Hooray. Don't let the door bump your behinds on the way out.

These guys set new milestones for financial and moral hanky-panky, including 19 members under federal investigation and last Friday's release of the House ethics report on the Mark Foley page scandal.

The Washington Post quoted Republican Rep. Zach Wamp of Tennessee, a member who entered Congress as part of the "Contract with America" Class of 1994: "Our leadership and some of our members grew arrogant in their power, and with arrogance comes corruption." Senator John McCain added, "We came to change Washington, and Washington changed us."

The 109th broke by a week the record of the notorious 1948 "Do-Nothing" Congress, managing to convene for a mere 103 days from January 2005 to 5 a.m., last Saturday morning. That's a little more than four days a month.

So indolent have these legislative layabouts been that, last week, when Democratic Majority Leader-Elect Steny Hoyer held a press briefing declaring the new Congress will meet for five whole days a week instead of the current average of 2.5, the reaction from many was shock and dismay.

A few members and some of the reporters who cover them griped like teenagers being told to shovel the walks and clean their rooms. Gauging by the bellyaching, you'd have thought Hoyer had announced that Taco Bell was taking over catering for the House and Senate dining rooms.

Not much was accomplished during the 109th, but there was the usual manic flurry of activity the last couple of days, sort of like those sudden deathbed confessions at the moment of reckoning that keep you from going to Hell.

In the final hours, Congress approved $45 billion in tax cuts, a nuclear cooperation deal with India (despite that country's refusal to sign the nonproliferation treaty), the opening of more than 8 million acres off the Gulf Coast to petroleum and natural gas drilling, an increase in tax-free contributions to health savings accounts that labor believes allows companies to dump more medical costs on workers and a trade bill that many say will take away more American jobs. Merry Christmas.

Much as even a stopped watch is right twice a day, some good was accomplished -- a continuation of the tax break for college tuition, for example, energy conservation incentives, $6 billion in HIV and AIDS initiatives and much-needed overhauls of fisheries laws and the US Postal Service. But they also managed to fob off nine of eleven spending bills for fiscal year 2007 onto the new guys.

"It's a real act of defiance by the lame-duck Congress and a conscious attempt to set up a political problem for the next Congress," congressional historian Julian Zelizer told the Christian Science Monitor.

"It's more than just leaving a budgetary mess. It's creating a huge problem in how Democrats will solve the tension within their party between fiscal conservatives and those who want to start new spending initiatives and how Democrats will deal with corruption and whole pork-barrel issues."

The Democrats think they've come up with a way to work around the problem, announcing on Monday the creation of one big joint resolution that will replace the nine outstanding bills.

The new Congress that convenes January 4th has ambitions and an appetite, but whether its eyes (or "ayes") are bigger than its stomach remains to be seen. Its Democratic members vow that they'll fight for greater transparency and to restore the checks and balances function of congressional oversight (without getting bogged down in time-wasting talk of impeachment). They're touting their so-called "Hundred Hours" agenda that in the first few days of the session will push for such measures as Medicare prescription drug cost reductions, halving the interest on student loans, a minimum wage increase and ethics reform.

But before we shout the 109th Congress is dead, long live the 110th Congress, pay heed to a couple of troubling indications that Democratic calls for reform may not be as fully heartfelt as they seem.

Despite their pledge as part of the "Hundred Hours" to implement all the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, the November 30 Washington Post reported that, "Democratic leaders have decided for now against implementing the one measure that would affect them most directly: a wholesale reorganization of Congress to improve oversight and funding of the nation's intelligence agencies. Instead, Democratic leaders may create a panel to look at the issue and produce recommendations, according to congressional aides and lawmakers...

"In 2004, the commission urged Congress to grant the House and Senate intelligence committees the power not only to oversee the nation's intelligence agencies but also to fund them and shape intelligence policy. The intelligence committees' gains would come at the expense of the armed services committees and the appropriations panels' defense subcommittees. Powerful lawmakers on those panels would have to give up prized legislative turf...

"'Of all our recommendations, strengthening congressional oversight may be among the most difficult and important,' [the commission] wrote. 'So long as oversight is governed by current congressional rules and resolutions, we believe the American people will not get the security they want and need.'

"Now Democrats are balking, just as Republicans did before them."

What's more, although on Monday the Democratic leadership declared a moratorium on earmarks -- those often-anonymous additions to bills that fund pet, pork barrel projects -- it's just a temporary measure until fiscal 2008 rolls around. They say earmark reform will be in place by then, but don't count on it. Earmarks are just too tempting and useful for individual members, and loopholes are standard operating procedure.

Thus I'm sure they'll never go for my own favorite reform proposal, first suggested by that great Texas populist Jim Hightower. Members of Congress would be required to wear NASCAR-style jumpsuits plastered with the corporate logos of their major campaign contributors.

Gentlemen and gentlewomen of the 110th Congress, start your engines.

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