- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 25, 2005

With all the fire and fury over judges and filibusters resounding in the halls of Congress, one might think very little else is getting done on Capitol Hill these days. But that, of course, would be wrong.

Most Americans get a sense of what their legislators are doing from the nightly news. For months, the media focus has been on the bitter judicial battles in the Senate or the ethics controversy over House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the confirmation battle over John Bolton’s nomination to be U.N. ambassador, and, before that, the court initiative to save the life of Terri Schiavo.

Meanwhile, big economic reforms have been moving along well outside of the spotlight, leaving some observers to fear President Bush’s ambitious postelection agenda could be sinking into a quagmire of legislative stagnation.

“The potential for high-minded policy reforms to fix entitlements and spur growth and prosperity has degenerated into a hopeless morass,” the usually optimistic, upbeat economist Larry Kudlow groused this week on National Review Online’s Web site (www.nationalreview.com).

Actually, a lot has been happening in Congress; much, if not most, of what goes on in the recesses of the Capitol and its committee rooms is done behind the scenes. Bills are being drafted and circulated among lawmakers, staffers and interested parties.

Many other bills have been acted on by the House and the Senate, and are now in conference to iron out differences. Others are being scheduled for debate and disposition. The White House exerts its own policymaking influence to keep bills on track and moving toward passage.

So while it may look like the nation’s legislature is distracted by one or two controversies, committees are meeting and Congress’ legislative machinery grinds on.

Social Security reform seemed to have fallen by the wayside in this period. But the House Ways and Means Committee has been holding hearings and legal counsels drafting language likely to make it to the panel’s final product.

Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas, California Republican appears to be taking a much broader view of Social Security reform, seeking to open up a wider range of retirement savings options — from universal 401(k)s to initiatives that will help lower-income workers build a retirement nest egg.

What isn’t clear yet is whether Mr. Thomas and House Republican leaders will include Mr. Bush’s personal Social Security investment accounts plan. My own view is it will be part of the bill that goes to the full House this summer.

On the Senate side, Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, is moving on the same issue, though it looks like the House by custom will be the first out of the starting gate. Mr. Grassley is committed to bringing a bill to the floor, though whether its inclusion of Mr. Bush’s core plan is problematic. It will probably be offered as an amendment.

The budget bills, meanwhile, have been voted on by both houses and the early accounting suggests they will cut deeply into the deficit, helped in large part by a stronger-than-expected flow of tax revenue from faster economic growth.

Contrary to prevailing public sentiment, and a slump in Congress’ job approval polls, the House and Senate have had a pretty productive spring. Historically, little gets done in the first several months of a new Congress. But this one has been different. Besides early action on the budget, it has passed two major reform bills, class-action lawsuit reform and bankruptcy protection, approved the defense supplemental bill to fight the war against terrorism, and is making headway on an energy bill that will make us less dependent on foreign oil.

A big economic expansion trade bill, known as the Central American Free Trade Act (CAFTA) is waiting in the wings for action. As former U.S. trade representative, now deputy secretary of state, Robert B. Zoellick argues, this is as much in our interests economically as in national security terms.

“When there is instability and poverty in our neighborhood, it is common sense to help our neighbors address those problems at home rather than import them into our own country,” Mr. Zoellick wrote in The Washington Post in an eloquent defense of the CAFTA pact.

But that’s not all that’s happening on the policy front in Washington. The tax-reform commission Mr. Bush appointed at the end of last year is busily finishing up a comprehensive proposal that will simplify the tax code and help make it much more conducive to economic growth, investment and job creation. Its proposals will be the next major task for the 109th Congress, possibly by this fall, or next year at the latest.

So there is much more going on in Congress than the Senate’s fierce, high-profile fight over its rules and procedures, with some very big bills awaiting action later this year that will affect the lives of every American. Stay tuned.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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