What Congress Should Do

Monday, December 5, 2005

THE FIRST session of the 109th Congress started with a bang, with quick passage of long-considered measures such as bankruptcy overhaul and class-action reform. With just a few weeks to go, it's apt to wrap up with more of a whimper, as deadlock between the two houses and disagreement within Republican ranks imperil passage of a budget agreement and other measures. With some important exceptions, that would be just fine.

The House gets back to work this week, the Senate the week after. A major piece of the unfinished congressional business, as always, involves money. On that score, Congress is -- if not on time in passing spending bills for fiscal 2006, which began Oct. 1 -- at least ahead of the usual pace; all but two of the measures (one for defense spending, the other covering health and education funding) have been approved.

The defense appropriations bill is hung up over a Senate-passed amendment that would ban U.S. personnel from "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" of detainees, closing a loophole that the administration has used to authorize torture by the CIA. House Republicans have stalled in appointing members of a conference committee, because they fear that the House will then pass a Democrat-sponsored resolution instructing the conferees to accept the amendment. It's time for the GOP leadership, and President Bush, to stop resisting the overwhelming sentiment in Congress, which is to put an end to the disgraceful abuse of foreign detainees in the war on terrorism.

We're less eager, though, to see agreement on a budget framework to cut mandatory spending, an issue that's separate from the individual spending bills. Republicans are trying, for the first time since 1997, to require cuts in entitlement programs. Cuts are certainly needed. But, given the House's insistence on having programs for the poor bear a large part of the burden, it seems unlikely that a fair and humane compromise will emerge.

In the end, the agreement may falter on the seemingly unrelated issue of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Senate measure would open the refuge, but moderate Republicans in the House have refused to go along, which could easily bring the whole thing down given the slender margin of passage in the House.

Congressional leaders seem less than bullish on the prospects for tax cuts this year. To which we'd say: no rush. There's time next year to extend some expiring tax provisions on which there is general agreement and to slap another temporary fix on the alternative minimum tax -- and there is no need for haste in extending the dividends and capital gains breaks, which don't run out until the end of 2008.

A final action item is the USA Patriot Act, key provisions of which are about to expire. The conference agreement between the House and Senate hit a last-minute snag when members of both houses and both parties objected that it did not include sufficient civil liberties protections. At least some of their objections should be accommodated, particularly shortening the expiration date for some of the most controversial provisions from seven to four years. The differences here are important but not insurmountable if House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) shows some flexibility.


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