In one of the last legislative acts before leaving for the Memorial Day Recess, Congress passed the "U.S. Troop Readiness, Veterans Care, Katrina Recovery and Iraq Accountability Appropriation Act of 2007" (H.R.2206). The vote in the Senate was 80-14 and 280-142 in the House. The supplemental spending bill provided nearly $100 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but did not contain language some Members wanted to insert in the bill to establish timelines for the withdrawal of United States forces from Iraq. The President had vetoed an earlier version of the bill which had contained timelines and the Congress had not been able to override that veto. Under the bill which was signed into law by the President on May 25, the Iraqi Government will be required to meet a series of benchmarks as a condition of receiving further United States aid for reconstruction efforts. H.R.2206 also provides about $20 billion in domestic spending for programs such as Katrina recovery efforts, veterans health care, agriculture assistance and the Children's Health Insurance Program. In addition, the bill increases the minimum wage from $5.15 per hour to $7.25 per hour by 2009 and enacts $4.8 billion in tax breaks for small businesses to help pay for the minimum wage increase.
While President Bush was ultimately successful in keeping troop withdrawal timelines out of this supplemental, the issue will likely return for additional Congressional consideration in the not too distant future. The potential vehicles for imposing timelines for troop withdrawal are the Department of Defense Reauthorization bill and the regular FY2008 Department of Defense Appropriations bill which will be taken up this Summer. In addition, Congress will have to consider another war Supplemental of an additional $100 billion in the Fall.
In mid-May Congress adopted a budget resolution for FY2008 (S.Con.Res.21). The Resolution was approved by a vote of 214-209 in the House, and 52-40 in the Senate. S.Con.Res. 21 projects about $2.9 trillion in Federal spending authority in 2008. Ten years ago the Federal budget for 1998 was only $1.7 trillion.
On May 15, 2007, the Senate passed the Food and Drug Administration Revitalization Act (S.1082) by a vote of 93-1. This bill reauthorizes the drug and medical device user fee regime at the FDA and also addresses issues concerning postmarket safety activities on approved drug applications.
In a late night session on June 7th, the Senate ended several weeks of debate on the "Secure Borders, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Reform Act of 2007" (S.1348) when Members defeated a Motion to Invoke Cloture on the bill by a vote of 45-50, 15 short of the required number. This legislation was the compromise product of over two months of negotiations between the Bush Administration and a core group of 10 Democratic and Republican Senators. The essential elements of the "Grand Bargain" would have allowed all illegal immigrants who arrived in the United States prior to January 1, 2007 to apply for a Z Visa which they would receive if they passed a background check and paid a fee of $5,000. The bill would have also established a new temporary worker program for future immigrants for both nonseasonal and seasonal workers. However, before the Z Visa and temporary worker programs could begin the Secretary of Homeland Security would have had to certify that certain border security "triggers" had been met. These included the hiring of 18,000 new border security officers, construction of 200 miles of vehicle barriers, and 370 miles of fencing.
The immigration bill was the subject of numerous efforts to amend it during extensive Senate debate. On June 6th alone there were 16 roll call votes on amendments during a marathon 15-hour Senate session. At times the debate was particularly contentious. However, on other less divisive issues the Senate spoke with one voice. On May 21st the Senate unanimously approved S. Res.130 designating July 28 as "National Day of the American Cowboy."
Before leaving for its Recess the House passed the "Honest Leadership and Open Government Act or 2007" (H.R.2316). It would require Members and senior staff to file a disclosure statement with the Ethics Committee when they are negotiating future employment or compensation with an outside entity and would make it a criminal offense to undertake or withhold any official act for the purpose of influencing an employment decision. It would institute a new electronic filing system for lobbying activities and require lobbyists to disclose any "bundling" of donations for political action committees. The Senate passed similar legislation in January (S.1) and the bills will now have to be reconciled in Conference.
The House also passed the Safe American Roads Act of 2007 (H.R.1773) which would halt the Administration's plan to allow Mexican long haul trucks access to U.S. highways until U.S. trucks have comparable access to Mexican highways. The bill passed by a vote of 411-3.
In addition, the House passed two pieces of legislation in response to rising gasoline prices. On May 22nd the House passed the "No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels Act of 2007" (H.R.2264) which would make the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) subject to domestic United States antitrust statutes. It would permit U.S. citizens to sue foreign governments in U.S. Courts and authorizes the Department of Justice to file suit in U.S. Courts against OPEC cartel members. On May 23rd the House passed the "Federal Price Gouging Prevention Act" (H.R.1252) which would prohibit the sale of gasoline at prices that are "unconscionably excessive" and "indicates the seller is taking unfair advantage of the circumstances related to an energy emergency to increase prices unreasonably." Under the bill the President is authorized to declare an "energy emergency" and thus trigger the prohibition of excessive pricing. The Administration opposes both H.R.2264 and H.R.1252.
On June 7 the House approved S.5 which is a Senate-passed version of a bill to expand federally funded stem cell research. There were 246 yeas and 176 nays. President Bush vetoed a somewhat similar bill in the last Congress. In the near term agenda, the Senate plans to take up a Resolution expressing no confidence in Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (S.J.Res.14) and then turn to consideration of the Renewable Fuels, Consumer Protection and Energy Efficiency Act of 2007 (S.1419). The House will begin the long process of clearing the 12 Appropriation bills with Floor votes on Energy and Water, Military Construction and Interior scheduled for the second week of June.
The Oversight Congress
Not surprisingly the Republican Congressional Leadership has been critical of what they view as the sparse list of legislative accomplishments produced so far by the Democratically controlled 110th Congress. The Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell noted that by the end of May only 28 bills have been signed into law with 13 of that number being bills naming federal buildings. The public also does not seem particularly impressed with the job Congress is doing at this time. In mid-May a Gallup Poll found that only 29% of Americans approve of the job Congress was doing. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll completed on June 1st, Congress' approval rating was 39% down from 44% in the same poll conducted in April. Majority Leader Harry Reid has defended the Congress's legislative record and noted that many significant bills, such as lobbying reform and implementation of the 9/11 Commission recommendations, are currently in Conference and will be sent to the President for his signature before the August Recess.
However, if the legislative record of the 110th Congress has so far been somewhat sparse, its record as an oversight Congress has been a particularly aggressive one. For the first six years of the Bush Administration, the Republicans controlled the committees in both Houses of Congress and had little inclination to conduct vigorous oversight of the Executive Branch. With the committees now under Democratic control, things have changed. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) stated that at the end of May, Democrats have conducted 204 full committee oversight hearings in the House. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform alone is currently conducting 20 investigations of both government agencies and private sector entities. Both the Senate and House Judiciary Committees have held extensive oversight hearings on the firing of U.S. Attorneys by the Department of Justice. Six Administration officials have already resigned in the wake of various Congressional investigations. The pace of oversight hearings will likely continue to accelerate. The Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, John D. Dingell (D-MI) has stated that there is a "huge backlog" of issues that need to be investigated.
Raymond Shepherd, the former Chief Counsel and Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and the head of Venable's Congressional Investigations Group, noted that representing clients involved in this type of proceedings poses particular challenges. Ray stated, "Congressional investigations and hearings are unique proceedings that have separate and distinct rules from judicial law as practiced by most law firms or legislative advocacy as practiced by most lobbying shops. In addition to these key differences each Committee and Subcommittee has its own distinct rules and history. These factors make responding to a Congressional investigation a complex and delicate task." Venable's Congressional Investigations Group is currently representing more than half a dozen clients before four different Congressional investigative committees in both the Senate and the House. The Group emphasized the importance of having counsel with experience in these matters to thoroughly investigate the facts at issue and bring to bear an understanding of the committees, rules, players and procedures that will drive the investigation.