November 8, 2004

November 8, 2004 | Commentary on

Legislative Lowdown – Week of November 8

Lame Duck Session. Congress returns to Washington the week of November 16th to complete work on the Fiscal Year 2005 federal spending bills, raise the debt ceiling, and (conservatives hope) resist the temptation so common during "lame duck" sessions to engage in legislative mischief.

House and Senate leaders have assured their colleagues that their return to Washington will be short and sweet, but Hill conservatives nevertheless expect frustrated committee chairmen to mount determined campaigns on behalf of stalled bills such as the massive, pork-laden highway bill and the intelligence reform legislation passed in response to the recommendations of the 9-11 Commission.

Insiders will be especially alert to attempts by the two outgoing Appropriations Committee Chairmen, Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens (R.-Alaska) and Florida Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) to pad the spending bills with pork and other unnecessary items. Should this happen, expect Hill leaders to push these confrontations into next year by passing another "continuing resolution" to fund existing programs for an additional two or three months.

Opportunities abound. Conservatives are downright giddy about Tuesday's election results in the Senate. The election of principled conservatives such as Tom Coburn (Okla.), Jim DeMint (S.C.), David Vitter (La.), Richard Burr (N.C.), and John Thune (S.D.) breathes new life into legislative efforts to, among other things, reform our Social Security system, control federal spending, pass the Federal Marriage Amendment, make the President's tax cuts permanent, and overcome Democratic procedural hurdles that have torpedoed the President's judicial nominations and tort-reform legislation.

The itch. The President's re-election, moreover, immediately transforms the upcoming 2006 mid-term elections (no, it isn't too early to ponder the next round of elections!) into a classic "six-year itch" election, where voters historically turn out members of the President's own party during his sixth year in office. To counter this, some Hill leaders take solace from the overwhelming success of the President's somewhat counterintuitive re-election strategy, where he chose to advance an aggressive and principled policy agenda to excite the Republican/conservative electoral base. After all, they reason, Bush won convincingly not by tacking to the mushy middle, but by appealing to his conservative base through his advocacy of robust initiatives such as the Bush Doctrine, the Federal Marriage Amendment, and an "Ownership Society."

Central to this analysis is the notion that the gridlocked 2000 elections represented, not a permanent 50-50 split between Red and Blue America, but rather a transitory moment when the upward trajectory of modern conservatism met an increasingly descendant liberalism. Results from the two subsequent elections gives experts, such as my Heritage Foundation colleague Matthew Spalding, reason to believe that America is in truth a conservative nation growing more conservative each election cycle.

What does this all mean? Conservative policies move most expeditiously in Washington when the substance behind a good idea aligns with the politics of the moment. When the 109th Congress convenes in January, political self-preservation may grease the skids for forward movement on big issues long regarded as too hot to handle.

Case in point: Social Security reform. Campaign professionals have long regarded proposals to allow young workers to set aside a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes into personal savings accounts as the political equivalent of touching the "third rail." Tuesday's results should put that old notion to rest. Every incoming Republican senator joined the President in campaigning on behalf of personal Social Security accounts. Each encountered stiff resistance from his Democratic opponent, including efforts to turn it into a political liability. Yet, in each and every case, the reform candidate won.

Skittish campaign consultants may be surprised to learn that the next Senate will include more than 50 senators who have publicly embraced this necessary reform idea. Should the President opt to use some of his abundant political capital to advance this issue, he will enjoy considerable support in the Senate.

Smaller government? The National Taxpayers Union circulated an encouraging analysis of the Senate election, concluding that "supporters of limited government and lower taxes got very good news in the 2004 Senate elections." NTU assigns a grade to each member of Congress on spending issues and found that outgoing Democratic senators scored considerably lower than the six Republicans with prior House service who will replace them. For example, South Carolina Senator-Elect Jim DeMint earned a perfect score in the latest NTU rating while the Democratic senator he replaces, Ernest Hollings, received an "F." Similarly, defeated Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards received NTU's lowest score and will be replaced by senators who earned respectable scores of B- during their last year in the House.

Mr. Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

First appeared in Human Events