- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Nothing lubricates the legislative process better than a deadline. And lawmakers on Capitol Hill had two big ones looming last week — the upcoming elections and a monthlong pre-election break. Both represent important cutoff dates that spawned a host of critical legislative accomplishments.

Congress went into overdrive recently, passing legislation to cut taxes for U.S. manufacturers, providing drought and disaster assistance and enacting homeland-security funding. Lawmakers also dealt with legislation authorizing next year’s defense programs and intelligence reform (acting on the September 11 commission’s recommendations). Adopting this legislation could pay handsome political dividends for lawmakers facing re-election, as well as President Bush, in the next several weeks.

Some Democrats grumble that the recent flurry of legislative activity provides President Bush with an inordinate arsenal of material for politically popular signing ceremonies in the last critical weeks of the election. No doubt Mr. Bush will affix his signature to these bills while campaigning in key battleground states, much as he did with the fourth tax cut during his four years in office, which he signed in Iowa a couple of weeks ago.

Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution provides the president 10 days, not including Sundays, to sign legislation after it is presented to him. But that last clause is critical. The 10-day clock starts when the White House Executive Clerk’s office receives the legislation and stamps “Received for Presentation to the President.”

Yet, due to an arcane process called “enrolling,” legislative leaders control when the president receives these bills. While it’s not the norm, lawmakers can wait weeks or months before sending legislation to the president. The end of the Congress is their only deadline.

That means congressional Republicans can forward the White House a constant stream of popular bills between now and the election — one of the little-known, yet politically powerful, prerogatives of controlling the majority in Congress.

Democrats in the Senate had the procedural tools to block or delay many of the recent legislative accomplishments, but the looming twin deadlines serve as a constraint on unmitigated obstructionism.

“Our leaders use deadlines, like a planned recess, to force action,” a Republican Senate leadership aide told me. This past week, legislative leaders used the looming election and the end of the Congress as an effective balm to salve pockets of opposition.

Also, because most of these bills were considered non-amendable “conference reports,” Democrats could not offer nongermane items shifting the debate onto their turf. As a result, the final days of Congress focused on issues such as defense, homeland security and tax cuts — all popular terrain for the Republicans.

The international tax bill was a good example. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, California Republican, used deadline lubricant liberally. Its passage eliminated tariffs imposed on U.S. exporters by the World Trade Organization, but Mr. Thomas included some regionally popular items, like a tobacco buyout, to ensure the billed passed. Failure to enact the legislation by the end of the year meant a new Congress would start from scratch. So Mr. Bush will get to sign his fifth tax cut in four years sometime between now and the election.

Lawmakers also wanted to complete final action on the defense authorization and homeland-security appropriations — both of them critical substantive and symbolic measures — before the election. The homeland appropriations bill includes the additional benefit of hurricane relief for Florida and drought assistance for other parts of the country.

Finally, both chambers passed their respective versions of intelligence-reform legislation, implementing many of the September 11 commission’s recommendations. Lawmakers still must resolve competing versions of the House and Senate bills, and they left open the option of coming back for a pre-election final vote. “We’ll see what kind of progress can be made toward compromise and the amount of pressure to get final resolution before the election,” a Hill aide told me. Yet everyone agrees a final compromise will pass in the lameduck session if Congress fails to return before the election.

Deliberation and debate — factors that normally lead to legislative delay — usually conspire to fill the available time as Congress takes collective action. Yet deadlines grease the gears and remove layers of resistance. The calendar provided the lubricant for Congress to produce a handsome list of pre-election accomplishments and the president a chance to dip his signing pen into some potent electoral ink.

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