The Lame-Duck Congress

Monday, November 13, 2006

ALAME-DUCK congressional session when both the House and Senate are about to change hands isn't, as a general matter, the right time to make important policy decisions. When it reconvenes this week, the 109th Congress should concentrate on finishing up the business of the 109th Congress -- primarily, passing the 11 remaining spending bills for the 2007 fiscal year, which started in October. The temptation for Republicans will be simply to approve a continuing resolution keeping this year's spending at 2006 levels, leaving the new majority to make the tough choices when it takes over in January. But this would be an abdication of responsibility, forcing government agencies to limp along without knowing their final budgets. It would create a logjam for the new Congress, which will simultaneously have to be staffing up, dealing with the president's 2008 budget proposal and working on an expected emergency spending bill early next year.

Another pressing task should be to give the District of Columbia full voting rights in the House. The moment is right for this to happen, thanks in large part to the efforts of Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) to broker an agreement that would create a new seat in the District along with a new congressional district in Republican-leaning Utah. Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has said he will call a special session of his state's legislature to create a new, at-large congressional district. This is a deal that would be fair to District residents without advantaging either party. We hope that President Bush, who appeared unfamiliar with the issue when he was asked about it at his news conference the other day, has been fully briefed and will be fully supportive.

There are other important items on the congressional to-do list -- as well as some that are "to-don'ts." Confirmation hearings and, if possible, a vote on the nomination of Robert M. Gates to become the new defense secretary would avoid delaying Mr. Gates's start in that important job. Congress should also approve normalization of trade relations with Vietnam in advance of the president's trip there this week and extend an expiring trade deal that provides benefits to key South American countries. The House has already approved a nuclear agreement with India; the incoming Senate Democratic leader, Nevada's Harry M. Reid, has put that item on his priority list as well, and the Senate ought to act on it. Having let slip through a provision setting a termination date for the inspector general for Iraqi reconstruction, Congress should pass a measure to fix this mistake.

Mr. Bush mentioned some other matters last week that would be better left for the new Congress. We would like to see carefully crafted legislation to provide a legal framework for the administration's warrantless surveillance program, but the measures that have been proposed so far go overboard in giving carte blanche to the administration. This is an important subject -- and one that ought to be taken up by the 110th Congress. Meanwhile, the president's last-ditch push to win confirmation of controversial U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton during the lame-duck session isn't a particularly good omen of presidential willingness to compromise with Democrats. Mr. Bolton's nomination is a matter the White House would do better to drop, for the lame-duck session and beyond, if Mr. Bush is serious about that new tone he talked about the day after the election.

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