- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 22, 2004

While the109th Congress will soon get to work on some exciting new legislative initiatives, including Social Security reform and the federal tax code, much of what lawmakers address next year will have a familiar ring to it — like those Christmas tunes you should be hearing doing your last-minute Christmas shopping instead of reading this column. House members in particular may feel a sense of deja vu as last year’s issues form the bulk of next year’s agenda. No, it’s not a sequel to the Bill Murray movie, but it still might be called the “Groundhog Day” Congress. Here’s why.

While Republican majority status continues from this year to next, lawmaking activity does not. Everything starts anew on Jan. 3. This includes issues experiencing significant progress last Congress — but never enacted into law. All incomplete measures go back to square one, literally reintroduced as new bills next year.

The list is impressive. House and Senate leadership aides routinely tick off at least a dozen issues off the top of their heads — and more with notes. Energy legislation, welfare reform, incentives to charities (CARE Act), tort reform — such as class action reform, medical malpractice, gun manufacturer liability, asbestos litigation legislation, bankruptcy reform — Head Start, higher education reauthorization, vocational education reauthorization and highway funding legislation are all on tap. Sound familiar? All have one thing in common: Each underwent significant legislative activity last year — some even passed the House and the Senate. But lawmakers never resolved all the differences and finished a conference report, so they go back to the drawing board in 2005. In fact, shorthand among Capitol Hill agenda planners refers to this basket of issues as the “redo” items. And while many in the media focus on the new initiatives, completing the items stalled in the queue — in some cases for several years — will make up the bulk of next year’s agenda.

Several factors caused the backup. Many passed the House, but could never muster the 60 votes necessary in the Senate, where Democrats insisted on supermajority margins on most items — big or small on a routine basis. This year’s truncated election calendar, which added additional political difficulty and meant a more abbreviated, campaign-friendly work schedule, also contributed to legislation not making it over the goal line. Finally, some legislation just takes time to build consensus, work out compromises and address new wrinkles. Time is often the secret ingredient that lubricates the gears of legislative progress.

Some Republican congressional aides worry that the volume of old business, in addition to new legislation, like Social Security and tax reform, could set up unrealistic expectations for the 109th Congress. “In any other year, if we could get just the old items done, it would be a very successful Congress,” a GOP leadership staffer told me. “Now we have to also do Social Security and taxes to be successful?” The sheer volume of old business is daunting, but lawmakers receive assistance from previous activities.

The dance of legislation has a certain rhythm and length. Going through the motions in the past means arguments, pro and con, are already well understood, and the opposition usually gets smoked out, with critical compromises made along the way. All of this work contributes to constructing a foundation of support to sustain the edifice of an enacted law. A Republican House staffer agreed. “Not getting these things done last year doesn’t mean the Congress failed. Sometimes major issues like these just take time to get punched through.” It’s the time of the season when many in the media predict the agenda for the new Congress. Yet next year’s plan contains an interesting twist. More so than any time in recent memory, the “old” will become the “new.” Most of what is on tap next year will be a legislative mulligan — another shot at completing previously attempted legislation.

But if political opposition, lack of time or the need for compromise created a dam blocking enactment of previously considered items, that obstacle is ready to burst and allow a torrent of pent-up legislation to flow. Like Bill Murray, who learned valuable lessons from reliving his past, lawmakers are poised to build on previous legislative work and setbacks. That bursting levee, and the stream of legislation that flows from it, could create one of the most productive Congresses in many years, regardless of what happens on Social Security and tax reform.

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