Legislative Lowdown: The Do-Nothing Congress

COMMENTARY Poverty and Inequality

Legislative Lowdown: The Do-Nothing Congress

Aug 19th, 2008 3 min read

Policy Analyst

As senior fellow in government studies at The Heritage Foundation, Brian Darling...

For conservatives who have the stomach to monitor Congress, the 110th Congress has been especially unsatisfactory.  Real Clear Politics has Congress with an average approval rating of 20% and a disapproval rating of 74%, strong evidence that the American people are nauseated with Congress.

Conservatives are angry because members of Congress do not have an appetite for a pro-active comprehensive conservative agenda for change. Remember the Contract with America? It worked, but evidently conservatives have a short memory.  Real legislative achievements have been rare and liberals in Congress are in the process of starving the Bush Administration while anticipating a potential feeding frenzy if they capture the White House and both houses of Congress.  It's instructive to look back at what Congress failed to put away in the past 20 months.

Gas Prices

Gas prices still hover at close to $4 a gallon and Congress has yet to pass legislation to open up more domestic production of oil or take any other significant measures to lower the price of gas at the pump.  Senator Hillary Clinton (D-New York) and Senator John McCain (R-Az.) proposed a gas tax holiday for the summer, and that was panned by many as a gimmick.  A permanent elimination of the federal gas tax, currently 18.4 cents per gallon, and a shifting of responsibility to the states to maintain highways and collect revenue would be one reform that would reduce prices at the pump.

The most important factor that is keeping gas prices high at the pump is the simple law of supply and demand.  Supply, which is decreasing domestically, is not keeping up with increased world demand.  House Republicans have been staging a historic protest in the House chamber of high gas prices since 11:20 a.m. on August 1. The American people are making it clear they want to see more domestic production of oil.  Congress has the power to take the following action before the end of the year to reduce prices at the pump:

  1. Remove the Congressional ban on the issuing of new drilling permits off the coast of Florida and California;
  2. Remove the Congressional ban on allowing Oil Shale that with further breakthroughs may one day provide hundreds of billions of barrels of oil in the United States; and,
  3. Remove regulatory obstructions that prevent the expansion and creation of new oil refineries in the United States.

Conservatives want the historic protest by House Republicans to produce a gas price reduction at the pump.

Health Care

Heath care is expensive, and there are conservative proposals that would reduce prices for every American -- if Congress has the will for dramatic change. If Congress were serious about addressing health care, it should fix the inequitable tax treatment for the purchase of private health insurance.

Today, Americans who get coverage through their employer get an unlimited tax break.  But there is no comparable tax break for those who buy their coverage outside their place of work. Congress should level the playing field and, at the very least, provide families that don't have employer-based coverage tax relief for the purchase of private health insurance. Even in the controversial SCHIP debate, Congress could find middle ground by offering middle and lower income families tax relief to help them buy private coverage for their kids.

Nuclear Energy

Conservatives want more nuclear power plants to provide new sources of electricity.  To really get nuclear power moving forward, Congress needs to stop coming up with new ways to subsidize nuclear energy and implement policies that would unleash the power of the market.  

First, Congress could transfer control of nuclear waste management away from government and into the private sector.Private nuclear power operators are better positioned to develop an economically rational and sustainable approach to managing used nuclear fuel. Next, Congress can take action on opening up foreign markets for U.S. companies to produce energy. While America's market for nuclear goods is relatively free, most markets around the world are tightly controlled, which suppresses competition and disadvantages American companies. Action item number three is to make sure that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is adequately manned and funded. A well-funded NRC could not only decrease the time it takes to permit a new plant but would be better prepared to support the commercialization of new and innovative nuclear technologies as they are developed. And finally, Congress needs to further streamline the regulatory process. There is no good reason that it should take four years to permit a new nuclear plant and five years to build one.

A New Contract with America

Remember the Contract with America?  The Republicans in the House of Representatives wrote the Contract during the 1994 Congressional elections to give the American people a reason to vote for members who supported Conservative ideas.  The plan included ideas to promote lower taxes and shrink the size and scope of the federal government, including plans to balance the federal budget.  

Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC), Chairman of the conservative Senate Steering Committee, and Congressman Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), Chairman of the Conservative House Republican Study Committee, are perfectly perched to promote new ideas to limit the size and role of the federal government and keep taxes low.  Conservatives are hungry for new ideas and a plan to implement specific policy objectives to restore the confidence of the American people in their elected officials.

Brian Darling is director of U.S. Senate Relations at The Heritage Foundation

First appeared in Human Events