- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2003

With 2003 drawing to a close and an election year around the corner, now is an opportune time to review the work Congress has done over the past 12 months. Although the Senate finished the session without completing votes on the omnibus spending package or the energy bill, the major legislation that was finished made for a successful session. International focus on the war in Iraq overshadowed many domestic issues, but 2003 was not just about war. There were many domestic accomplishments on Capitol Hill this year.

The legislative outlook was bleak in January. There was still a heavy load of unresolved congressional business from 2002. And although Republicans regained the majority in the Senate during last year’s mid-term elections, there was serious uncertainty as to whether new Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist was up to the task of managing the divided chamber. After only one term in the Senate, many of his colleagues privately grumbled that Mr. Frist was too inexperienced to take the helm. Those reservations proved unfounded.

As one Republican leadership aide put it to us this week: “We started the year out in a hole, but we got the appropriations bills passed that we didn’t last year, we got the budget in place and we passed a tax cut that significantly contributed to the substantial economic growth we’re seeing now. Plus the historic Medicare bill — all while the country is fighting the war on terror and a war in Iraq at the same time. That’s pretty good footing going into the New Year, and it was only possible with Republican majorities and a Republican president.”

That’s obviously partisan spin, but there is substance behind the boasting. The current economic forecast is especially impressive, given not only the ongoing war efforts, but the dot-com bust, which decimated a market that had provided a significant portion of national growth over the previous few years. Recent economic news is promising indeed. Third-quarter growth hit a 19-year high of 8.2 percent, manufacturing and housing construction are up, inflation is at a 38-year low and the Dow Jones Industrial Average is over 10,000. The tax cuts played a part in the resurgence by reducing dividend and capital-gains taxes, which allowed investors to put more capital into the market. Overall, the tax cuts probably induced about 25 percent of current GDP growth.

The most important long-term legislative success was passage of the prescription-drug bill and the Medicare reforms associated with it. While some Democrats tried to deride the package as destructive to Medicare and a risk to drug coverage for seniors, these naysayers are losing the public-relations war. Even most liberal news outlets are characterizing the law as providing new coverage for millions of seniors for the first time ever. Passage was particularly important because the legislation included an open window for Health Savings Accounts, which for the first time will allow some individual control over medical coverage that leads in the direction of privatization of the system. The drug subsidy might be costly, but increasing market options for medical care could more than make up for the expense over time. While some conservatives opposed the law on the principled ground of protecting limited government, nationwide, the majority of self-identified conservatives support the principle of subsidizing the cost of prescription drugs for the elderly.

The legislative year was far from a total success, however. Republican leaders in both the House and Senate were unable to prevent their members from votingfortheMcCain-Feingold campaign-finance restrictions, which severely curtail the input of grassroots groups in national political fundraising. But perhaps the most noteworthy of the bad news was the Republican leadership’s unwillingness to rein in out-of-control pork spending. In the last two years, government spending has increased by 27 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Non-military discretionary spending is up 8.7 percent. There is an obvious need to spend more on defense and homeland security, given the tenacity of America’s enemies, but the majority must try to limit spending in other areas. If Congress cannot manage the task, the president can and should veto bloated spending bills.

There are a lot of good ideas that still could find their way into law in the near future. For example, a permanent abolition of the estate tax has been passed by the House but not the Senate, and school vouchers are still a theory and not a comprehensive program. But this year’s successes took hard work, including an all-night debate in the Senate and a vote kept open for an unprecedented three hours in the House to guarantee passage of the prescription-drug bill. Republicans came into 2003 promising to increase American security, restart the stalled economy and deliver health-care reforms. By that measure, it was a good year.

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