Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Decoding the First 100 Hours

So much of politics is a matter of perception and expectations, so it's useful at this point to review the program offered by Rep. Pelosi before the election for the agenda of the first 100 hours of her Speakership:

1) Enact all 41 of the 9-11 Commission's Recommendations (scheduled for adoption Jan. 9)

2) Increase minimum wage--probably to $7.25 (scheduled for Jan. 10)

3) Remove existing restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research (scheduled for Jan. 11)

4) Permit (or require) the federal government to negotiate prescription drug price schedules with pharmaceutical companies (scheduled for Jan. 12)
5) Cut interest rates on federally guaranteed student loans "in half" (scheduled for Jan. 17)

6) "End subsidies for Big Oil and invest in renewable energy" (scheduled for Jan. 18)

It's hard to see how this can be done successfully.

To implement even a quarter of the 9-11 commission recommendations is going to require significant congressional hearings to clarify roles and responsibilities. Democrats on the Hill have made off-the-record comments within a month of their electoral victory distancing themselves from some of the Commission's recommendations. Even stifling all Republican input on the issues involved is not going to remove the real differences of opinion which exist even within the Democratic caucus on how these recommendations should be implemented. All that can reasonably expected for Jan. 9 is some sort of boilerplate endorsement of the findings of the 9-11 commission along with a vague pledge to implement its recommendations in due course. The actual jurisdictional bloodletting will necessarily be kicked down the road. So the 100 hours will begin with an act of theatre as opposed to actual legislative change.

Day Two will offer an actual legislative accomplishment for the Democrats; most members of the House--Republican or Democratic--are already on record as voting for this raise, but the issue will not finally be resolved until the Senate weighs in with its version, which may very well include the same small business tax breaks which the Democrats found indigestible in October. The long-term consequence of this action will therefore remain to be seen, although the bill passed by the House on Jan. 10 will at least bear the hallmarks of actual legislation.

Day Three brings us the most arbitrary issue of the Democrats' 100-hour programme--one which has never reached statistical significance in any polling of Americans' concerns. Rep. Pelosi has expressed her hope to pass the abolition of restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research by veto-proof majority of 290 votes or more. Given that the recent House override attempt on the issue failed 235-193, it is difficult to see from where the additional votes are going to come. Since President Bush has already rejected such legislation repeatedly, it is hard to see what end this initiative serves, except, again, divisive theatre.

Day Four, and the last day of the Democrats first big week, will bring legislation to permit federal direct negotiations with pharmaceutical manufacturers. This in fact is likely to pass, and it's also likely to reach the President, but its long-term consequences are discounted by the Congressional Budget Office.

Day Five will bring legislation to lower interest rates on federal student loans. As Byron York of National Review pointed out, this runs smack into the Democrats' pledge of fiscal responsibility and embrace of pay-as-you-go budget accounting, so it's hard to see how this circle will be squared in the single day given over to it.

Day Six brings us the ritual denunciations of the unpopular oil companies, but what form the Democratic legislation will take is difficult to say, especially given the established tendency of oil-patch Democrats to prevent their regional economies from being targeted to win points for their coastal brethren. Rep. Dingell indicates that reforming oil drilling leases and incentives and establishing an alternative fuels fund is going to take significant fact-finding and numerous hearings, so again, the actual legislation for day six seems likely to be mostly pro-forma.

Coupled with the Democratic leadership's repeated undercutting of its own anti-corruption talking points in such matters as Rep. Jefferson's frozen assets and Abscam-tainted Rep. Murtha, it seems as though the new House leadership will struggle to reconcile its sweeping rhetoric with the political capital it is actually willing to spend to implement it.

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