New Congress Opens with Historic Developments
New Leadership Brings Flurry of Activity
Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA),
Speaker of the House
Senator Harry Reid (D-NV),
Senate Majority Leader
Representative Steny Hoyer (D-MD),
House Majority Leader
Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL),
Senate Majority Whip
Representative James Clyburn (D-SC),
House Majority Whip
On January 4, the 110th Congress convened following the November election that returned Democrats to the majority in both chambers for the first time in 12 years. Representative Nancy Pelosi of California made history when she was elected the first female Speaker of the House, shattering what she called the “marble ceiling” in Congress. Democrats, particularly those running for the House, campaigned in part on an agenda of specific domestic and international priorities that the majority committed to quickly consider and pass if elected. The new majority immediately began to tackle this agenda with the ambitious goal of completing it in the first 100 legislative hours of the Congress. The following summarizes that agenda and highlights some of the other priorities for the Congress in the near term.
Ethics and Lobby Reform—On January 4 and 5, the House overwhelmingly approved changes to its rules designed to limit the influence of lobbyists and make a wide range of basic Congressional functions more transparent. Among other things, the rules ban lobbyist-funded travel and gifts; require members of Congress to disclose sponsorship of narrowly targeted funding, tax, and policy provisions generally known as “earmarks”; and mandate that Congressional deliberations, especially conference committees between the House and Senate, be more participatory and open.
Economic Security—The House will consider a number of measures designed to boost economic security for working families and seniors. On January 10, it voted 315 to 116 to increase the federal minimum wage by $2.10 per hour over two years. If enacted into law, this would be the first increase in the federal minimum since 1997. On Friday, the House approved legislation by a 255 to 170 margin that requires the Secretary of Health and Human Services to negotiate drug prices with major pharmaceutical companies. The goal of this effort is to lower the cost of drugs used by many Medicare beneficiaries, which in turn would reduce federal expenditures. Finally, the House will consider legislation to lower student loan interest rates.
Investing in Renewable Energy—Later this month, Democrats are expected to begin considering legislation to boost support for a wide range of renewable energy resources. Although the text of the legislation was not available when Land Online was delivered, press reports suggest that repealing certain tax breaks and boosting efforts to collect royalties from offshore oil and gas production could generate billions of dollars in savings and revenue. Those reports indicate that funding could be shifted to solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, nuclear, biomass, ethanol, and other renewables. The press reports also highlight pitfalls along the way, as some in Congress and outside the institution oppose investment in certain areas, especially nuclear power, while others are raising questions about the potential drawbacks associated with dramatic expansion of ethanol production.
Beyond the First 100 Hours
Although the agenda beyond the first 100 hours has yet to be fleshed out with such clarity, the broad outlines of portions of that agenda are visible today.
Grappling with Iraq—In many respects, the issue continues to dominate much like it did during the campaign. The Speaker addressed it in her very first remarks to the House, and Democratic leaders in both chambers are directly challenging the President on key issues, particularly the proposal to “surge” 20,000 additional troops into the country. Throughout this Congress, this issue and all its facets will receive tremendous attention from every member, multiple committees, and the leadership.
Passing a Federal Budget—The last Congress was unable to complete its most fundamental constitutional duty—passing a budget to fund the federal government. The new majority has made clear that it will complete this task by mid-February. To do so, leaders of the Appropriations committees in both chambers have indicated that the Congress will largely follow the spending blueprint developed in 2006 rather than begin the process from scratch. Although this approach is likely to lock in spending in key areas at levels lower than many Democrats might want, the leaders have indicated that this approach is the best option for funding essential functions for the reminder of the fiscal year and will allow the new majority the opportunity to shift its focus to addressing new priorities for the future.
Restoring Checks and Balances—The new majority has also made abundantly clear that it intends to exercise vigorous oversight of federal agencies and programs. Although oversight will be a particular priority in the national security arena, one can expect almost every committee in the House and Senate to review how the Administration is implementing programs and policies under their jurisdiction.
Renewing American Farm Policy—Over the coming year, the Congress is also expected to renew multiyear legislation known to many as the “Farm Bill.” This sweeping measure affects every aspect of agriculture policy as well as rural development, nutrition, conservation, higher education, and a myriad of other issues. Developing legislation to guide agriculture policy into the next decade will be challenging as domestic and international pressure mounts to reallocate some dollars that have historically supported a few commodities (such as corn, rice, cotton) to other priorities, including renewable energy, a wide range of conservation initiatives, sustainable agriculture, and community development.
Although most of the initial priorities of this Congress fall outside ASLA’s agenda, staff and members are preparing to be actively engaged with Congress over the coming year. Priorities for outreach will include securing funding for the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) and exploring Congressional interest in legislation ASLA has developed to support small community visioning efforts.
Scott Kovarovics is Manager of Federal Government Affairs for the American Society of Landscape Architects, email@example.com. For more information about ASLA’s federal policy priorities, please read the Federal Government Affairs column.