So the 110th congress, elected in last year's elections, has their first day of work tomorrow.
A lot of people have some very elaborate plans for how this is all going to go down from minute one, and in drastic contrast to how Congress normally works I think the beginning of this Congressional session will actually be pretty fast-paced and interesting.
For starters, making things interesting here is Nancy Pelosi, whose "First 100 Hours" strategy
was published before the election, detailing a really extremely busy agenda of things that Pelosi claimed a Democrat-controlled congress would do IMMEDIATELY. As far as I can tell, if they stick to this plan, this means by early next wednesday morning, or tuesday after next if we're talking working hours here, we should have ethics reforms, previously unenacted recommendations from the September 11 commissions, a minimum wage raise, a lowering of student loan costs, a change to last year's medicare plan to allow negotiation over prices, and a removal of the federal ban on stem cell research.
Apparently attempting to make a clear difference between the 110th congress and the 109th congress that the Democrats (as absolutely nobody paid attention to them because everybody was too busy thinking about Mark Foley) tried very hard to paint as "do-nothings", Pelosi, amazingly enough, appears to have actually taken some steps to make sure this hopelessly busy agenda actually comes to pass; apparently nearly every one of the items on this list is going to go pretty much straight to a vote,
without going through committees or the normal hearing and debate process. This is a really interesting move-- and one that has the Congressional Republicans really pissed off, because they [correctly] observe that this is not an open, accountable, or bipartisan way to run the Congress. The Democrats reply that yeah, but this was the platform they ran on and it has as close to a direct voter stamp of approval as anything Congress does is ever likely to get:
As they forged the January calender, Pelosi and other Democratic leaders were aware they would be criticized for initially not fulfilling her promise to allow more input from the minority.
But "she also promised we would do this in 100 hours, and this is the way to get these (measures passed),'' Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly said Tuesday.
"The priority is to get this done,'' Daly said. "These are things we ran on and said we were going to do."
Daly said Pelosi remains committed to granting the minority a significant role in the 110th Congress and that this will be apparent over the next two years.
While I do think this would be horrible practice if they make a habit of it, I think that this is actually kind of cool so long as it's just a trick to pass the "100 hours" stuff in time and it doesn't reflect how the Congress will be run after that. The whole thing is also a fairly ballsy move, and one that's actually pretty likely to work. Almost everything on the list (except the ethics reforms, which worryingly they seem to plan to do on day one) is simple and straightforward enough that there's not really any way to amend it except to add pork. Meanwhile, as long as the Democrats vote as a bloc on that first set of items, pretty much everything on the list can
get passed as a straight up-or-down vote; and the Democrats can
probably be convinced to vote as a bloc for at least this one single electoral orgasm, as long as they don't have to hold the pose any longer than next Wednesday morning. (By next Thursday
, of course, the progressives and the blue dogs will be literally trying to chew each other's faces off on the house floor.)
On this note, the only remaining observation there is to make really is that the new head of the House Rules Committee, the person who will be overseeing ethics reforms, is named Louise Slaughter. That is fucking awesome.
Look at this sentence that Fox News
was forced to print:
Slaughter was expected to outline the House ethics plans for reporters on Wednesday.
The other person to watch over the next couple of weeks is going to be George W. Bush, who has made it clear he intends to at least attempt to take a very active hand in what this new Congress does. Although last year's election can be viewed as one giant "Dear George W. Bush, We Hate You" note from the electorate, Bush is going on the offensive, hoping that if he just plows ahead and insists he's relevant, it will be true. He actually very well may be right. Bush is inserting himself into the Democrats' little victory party in two very specific ways.
For starters, Bush today suddenly made an announcement of a slew of priorities he has for this years' budget
, the centerpiece of which is-- be ready-- balancing the budget. Bush is making a really, really big deal about how the budget should be balanced. This is kind of like seeing Richard Dawkins go up on a stage and announce that the key to happiness and world peace is that everyone needs to accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.
Okay, I may be a little unnecessarily snarky about this. But as a cynical person I cannot help but note the obvious facts that (1) it's only now for the first time occurred to Bush that budget deficits are bad now that the Democrats are in power and there's some chance of the budget being spent on things Bush doesn't like, and (2) Bush's unveiled plan, which some economists think smells kinda fishy
since Bush still wants to make his tax cuts permanent, would call for the budget to be balanced by 2012-- in other words, "by the end of the next guy's term".
Of course, this doesn't matter so much right now. For one thing, the budget (which was supposed
to have been passed by the end of last
year) is going to have to wait a bit, what with how busy the Congress will be in those first 100 hours legalizing stem cell loans for minimum-wage 9/11 commission members and whatnot. Meanwhile the initial posturing over the budget can only wind up being a good thing, since it indicates that both the white house and the congress are dedicated to making this year's federal budget, if no other, be balanced; the disagreement from here is going to be solely about how best
to balance the budget, which is a much better debate to be in than the ones we've been in the last however many years. If we get really lucky the White House and Congress might get into a game of political Chicken trying to out-fiscal-responsibility each other or something, which can only lead good places.
So more important for now is probably the big time bomb that Bush is waiting to drop, which is his new Iraq plan
. After the American people made it as clear as possible that they don't think "stay the course" is working, Bush has been making an enormous amount of noise (without actually committing to anything) to unveil a new plan for Iraq based around staying the course even more
-- continuing with the current strategy, but "surging" troops by about 30,000 or so. This plan, which hasn't been fully explained or even formally announced, has the support of John McCain and basically nobody else.
This plan might not be for real. Bush might change his mind at the last minute, and he might not really want to do this-- the whole thing might just be the Harriet Myers sales trick again, putting forth something horribly unpalatable as a first attempt so that when he instead "gives in" and suggests instead something merely distasteful, it looks like a compromise. But either way, the point is, Bush is itching for a fight on Iraq, and the fight is going to be sooner rather than later. As soon as Bush makes this "plan" formal, the Congress is basically going to have to drop everything and get exactly what it is they plan to do about Iraq hashed out and on the table immediately, and probably won't be able to get much done until either Congress or the White House wrestles the other into submission. Since the Democrats don't seem to have decided yet amongst themselves what their own plans for Iraq were (aside from "whatever that James Baker guy said"), the Congress will not exactly be starting from a position of strength there.
The Financial Times says that Bush's plan (and the political flamewar it will touch off) is going to be unveiled "within 10 days"-- which will very neatly bring us right at, or near the end of, the 100 hours agenda. We are totally not going to have a budget passed until like after Super Mario Galaxy is released.
In the meantime, alongside all the things he's saying about balanced budgets, and all the things he's not saying about Iraq, Bush has today made a very, very large number of statements about "bipartisanship"-- many of them in, weirdly enough, an guest op-ed column
published in the Wall Street Journal this morning (sorry, I can't find a link). But these statements are pretty clearly meant to be read not as "I will work with the new Congress", but as "the new Congress had better damn well be ready to work with me":
Few believe Mr Bush is prepared to compromise on his most basic principles, which includes "victory" in Iraq, an extension of the controversial tax cuts that were pushed through in his first term, and opposition to the funding of stem cell research. The Democrats have promised contrary action on all three.
"Mr Bush talks the talk of bipartisanship but then he doesn't actually change his positions," says Thomas Mann, congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution. "His idea of bipartisanship is for members of both parties to support him."
In the short term, as far as it goes concerning "bipartisanship" and whether Congress or Bush is going to be the bitch for the next two years, the first thing to watch is probably going to be the inevitable stem cell funding bill which is looking like the most certain part of that 100 hours agenda to be passed. Congress passed last year, and Bush used the first and so far only veto of his presidency to stop, a stem cell research bill, so this is basically a do-over-- but it's a do-over that seems much more likely to work than the first try did. This is an issue which enjoys wide bipartisan support, and the margins by which the Congressional vote on the stem cell bill last year fell short of the "veto-proof" margin are just about equal to the gains the Democrats made in the elections last year. Whether or not stem cell research is possible in America one month from tomorrow is probably going to come down solely to whether Pelosi's aggressive "100 hours" tactics alienate enough Republican congresspersons that they vote against the stem cell bill just out of spite. (Although even if the stem cell bill gets past Bush the research might not be starting immediately-- because as far as I can tell until we pass a budget the NSF and NIH don't actually have any funding. LOL!)
As a final note, read this