In the approximately four weeks between the end of the July 4 Recess and the beginning of the August Recess, the Congress spent much of its time trying, unsuccessfully, to adopt a legislative policy in response to the sharp increase in gas prices and the overall rise in the cost of energy in general. The atmosphere among Members in both the Senate and the House seemed to reflect the lack of legislative achievements. On July 30, the Senate failed to invoke Cloture on S.3335, the Jobs, Energy, Families and Disaster Relief Act, which would extend tax credits for renewable energy. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) complained that this was the 92nd filibuster conducted by the Republicans in this session of Congress. In early June, the Republican Leadership in the Senate had employed a parliamentary maneuver to force the Clerk to read the entire 491 page America's Climate Security Act (S.3036) on the Senate Floor, a task taking more than 10 hours. The Republican Leadership complained that the Senate Majority Leader has used the procedural tactic of "filling the amendment tree" and thereby preventing Senators from offering amendments to the underlying bill more than 13 times since the beginning of the 110th Congress. Republicans charged that Reid has employed this tactic more often than any other Majority Leader since 1985.
In the House, a Motion to Suspend the Rules and pass H.R.6604, the Commodity Markets Transparency and Accountability Act concerning speculation in oil markets, failed on July 30. On August 1, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) adjourned the House after refusing to schedule a vote allowing drilling for oil on the Outer Continental Shelf. The House Republican Leadership had opposed the Adjournment Motion and insisted on a vote on the drilling amendment. Even after the House adjourned, several dozen Republican Members remained on the House Floor demanding that the Speaker call the House back in session and allow a vote on the amendment. These protest sessions on the House Floor continued through the August Recess.
So far the 110th Congress has adopted 294 public laws, fewer than any Congress has enacted in the last 20 years. Apparently the public was not impressed with this performance by the Congress. A CNN Opinion Research poll released on July 31 found that 22% approved of how Congress was doing its job, while 77% disapproved.
In addition to the renewable energy tax credit bill, the Senate considered but failed to pass a variety of energy related bills, including measures to increase regulation of energy futures trading (S.3268), subject the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to domestic U.S. antitrust statutes (H.R.2264), and require oil companies to invest some of their profits in alternative energy products (S.3044). Senate Republicans also joined their House colleagues in unsuccessfully pushing for a vote on a measure to allow drilling for oil in currently prohibited areas.
On July 9, the Senate gave final approval to H.R.6304, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments of 2008, by a vote of 69- 28. The Act gave the Administration enhanced authority to conduct electronic surveillance of persons located outside the United States in order to acquire foreign intelligence information and also provided immunity to telecom companies that had assisted the government in previous surveillance programs. The President signed the bill on July 7 (P.L.110-261).
The Senate gave final Congressional approval to the massive Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 (H.R.3221) by a vote of 72-13 on July 26. This bill was passed in response to the mortgage and housing crisis and represents the biggest involvement in the financial markets by the Federal Government since the New Deal. Among its major provisions are a reinforced government safety net for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and programs administered by the Federal Housing Administration to assist homeowners with troubled mortgages to refinance their loans at lower rates. The President signed the bill into law (P.L.110-289) on July 30.
On the same day the President signed the Tom Lantos and Henry Hyde United States Global Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Reauthorization Act (H.R.5501) into law (P.L.110-293). This program authorizes up to $48 billion over five years for anti-retroviral drug treatment and training for at least 140,000 new health care workers to provide HIV prevention, treatment and care.
In the final days before leaving for the August Recess, the Congress adopted the Conference Reports on the College Opportunity and Affordability Act (H.R.4137) and the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (H.R.4040). H.R.4137 reauthorized the Higher Education Act and increased the maximum Pell grant for low income students from the current level of $5,800 to $8,000 per year by the academic year of 2014-2015. It also established a $10,000 student loan forgiveness program for graduates who take jobs in certain public service positions such as teaching or nursing. The Consumer Act would ban lead in children's products, establish toy safety standards, protect whistleblowers and increase fines for manufacturing of faulty products. The President signed both of these measures into law on August 14.
The Road Ahead
The Congress returns from its August Recess on September 8. The Senate will then turn to consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2009 (S.3001). No doubt the Republican Leadership in both Chambers will resume the energy wars with legislative maneuvers to obtain a vote on measures to provide for oil drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf. Both the Senate and the House will also renew consideration of legislation to curb speculation in the oil futures markets.
One possible avenue for compromise on the energy issue could be the proposed New Energy Reform Act of 2008, put together shortly before the start of the August Recess by a bipartisan group of five Democratic and five Republican Senators led by Senator Kent Conrad (D-SD) and Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA). The draft plan contains three basic components: efforts to transition vehicles to non-petroleum based fuels, increased commitments to conservation and energy efficiency, and targeted production of domestic energy resources. The domestic production component would retain a 50 mile offshore buffer zone where no new oil production would be allowed, but would authorize Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia to determine if drilling would be allowed beyond that zone.
It is not clear if this limited drilling allowance would satisfy those Members favoring increased domestic oil production. The proposals they favor simply allow drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf rather than leaving the decision up to a limited number of state legislatures. Moreover, the New Energy Reform plan does not allow drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve. In addition to resolving these energy issues, the Congress will try to enact legislation in September to extend a package of renewable energy tax incentives that expire at the end of the year.
During September, Congress may also consider a new "stimulus supplemental" bill. The Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), released a draft supplemental proposal for $24.1 billion in spending on housing, infrastructure, natural disaster recovery and energy assistance. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has spoken of a stimulus supplemental of $50 billion. The House Minority Leader, John Boehner (R-OH), and the White House Budget Director, Jim Nussle, are not convinced of the need for a new stimulus package. While Congress may attempt to adopt a number of the 12 Appropriations bills, it will also need to pass a Continuing Resolution before adjourning to fund the Federal Government for a portion of FY2009. The House Democratic Leadership has announced a target sine die adjournment date of September 26. However, those targets are subject to change. Congressional Democrats would like to avoid the need for a post election lame duck session. This would be particularly the case if Senator Obama won the Presidential election. In that case, the 111th Congress could convene in 2009 with Democrats in control of the Senate, the House and the Presidency.