September 8, 2005 | Commentary on Legal Issues
High on the Senate's post-recess agenda will be confirmation
hearings for Supreme Court nominee John Roberts. A potentially
tense Senate Judiciary Committee markup, followed by up to a week
of floor debate and a dramatic up-or-down vote by the full Senate
will dominate the Senate's September agenda.
But the struggle over Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's successor won't be the only show in town when Washington awakens from its summer slumber.
Many of the looming legislative battles involve spending. Meeting the spending goals adopted last spring in the annual budget resolution will require Congress to limit its seemingly insatiable appetite for new spending in several challenging ways.
We are likely to see the first effort in a decade to scale back runaway entitlement programs. Congress agreed to shave a total of $34.7 billion over the next five years from this part of the budget. This is a rounding error in the larger context of entitlement spending, but even this modest goal will prove daunting.
The pain will be spread around. Medicaid must be trimmed by $10 billion. Another $6 billion appears likely to come from much-needed reforms of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. Even our heavily subsidized farm sector faces $3 billion in cuts.
Of course, any reduction in Medicaid's double-digit rate of growth will provoke unyielding opposition from the special interests that feed at the Medicaid trough and from liberal organizations that promote national health care. The National Governors' Association, however, recently weighed in with a list of useful reforms that lawmakers could embrace to take this baby step on the road to real reform.
Cutting the Pork
The budget agreement envisions a 1% reduction in federal spending in areas unrelated to national or homeland security. This will require the House and Senate Appropriations Committees and their many supplicants to restrain housing and job-training programs, Amtrak, farm subsidies, corporate pork, the National Endowment for the Arts, and other useless federal endeavors.
The need for even more restraint became apparent in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The cleanup will spawn a massive emergency-spending request, likely to exceed the $20 billion Congress appropriated to assist New York after 9/11. Will Congress offset these expenditures with reductions elsewhere in the budget, as it did in the 1990s after the Northridge, Calif., earthquake and the massive floods in the Midwest? If not, expect the budget situation to deteriorate dramatically.
Finally, this year's budget may uncork the two-decade long effort to open up a small parcel of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and natural-gas drilling. Although environmentalists and a stubborn band of two dozen House Republicans persist in opposing drilling in ANWR, the odds are better than ever that its energy cornucopia will finally reach America's consumers.
Also on the Agenda
If President Bush has his way, Congress will devote considerable time and effort to reforming Social Security. House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R.-Calif.) presciently believes the real issue goes beyond Social Security and encompasses the entire spectrum of retirement issues. Both Thomas and Jim McCrery (R.-La.), who chairs the Social Security subcommittee, are known for their ability to pull legislative rabbits out of a hat, so it's too early to write off this presidential priority issue.
Meanwhile, conservatives should be wary of three bills:
Correction: In last week's column, I incorrectly stated the
Joint Committee on Taxation's estimated cost of repealing the death
tax. It is $300 billion, not $30 billion.
Mike Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in Human Events