Congressional Observer

 - January 30, 2009, 5:59 AM

u Even before President Barack Obama took the oath of office on January 20 political analysts, media gurus (press, radio, TV talking heads) and a horde of amateur prognosticators came out of the woodwork to peer deeply into their crystal balls for any insight as to how Congress would react to Obama’s campaign promises and legislative goals.

Looking back to the last sessions of Congress when Democrats gained control of the Senate and the House of Representatives and promptly announced there would be
new directions to speed the lawmaking process, better control of earmark or pork amendments and more oversight of lawmakers’ ethics, ball gazers could see that partisan feuding transmitted only hazy pictures that reflected minimal Congressional output on must-do legislation. According to a Congressional Quarterly survey, the Senate last year voted the lowest number of times since 1951.

Looking ahead, Obama’s ambitious agenda to stabilize the economy, create universal healthcare coverage and overhaul federal energy policies created a picture suggesting that Obama’s desire to change the way Washington does business will face a rocky and bumpy road. Democrats hold 58 or 59 seats (three seats remain to be decided); they need 60 to prevent Republicans from filibusters.

Crystal balls can show ever changing views of the future, but one picture remains a constant: notwithstanding presidential desires and motives, only Congress can enact laws.

u While talk of massive spending packages to pull the nation out of a recession is bandied about, a joint report by the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Treasury Department said the government’s spending increased by 25 percent last year, putting taxpayers in the hole by more than $1 trillion–and that number doesn’t include the astronomical bailout costs thus far.

President-elect Obama warned that $1 trillion deficits would continue in years to come. Obama’s stimulus package would ban pork barrel or earmarked amendments, a rare move for large appropriations bills, which are usually larded up with pork.
However, appropriations bills for individual government agencies were left over from the 110th Congress, and pork has a home in those bills. The government’s need for cash grew exponentially as the country slipped into a recession. Since then Congress approved $168 billion in spending to stimulate economic activity, $700 billion to keep the U.S. financial system from going down the drain and multimillion-dollar bailouts to various financial institutions that included AIG, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. If Congress does not plan to raise taxes or cut spending, the government will have to borrow money. When the fiscal year ended in September, the U.S. Treasury added $720 billion to the national debt. More borrowing was predicted during the current fiscal year as the cost of bailouts and another stimulus package combines with slowing tax revenues that will force the government to increase the debt by as much as $2 trillion to finance its obligations.

u At press time three Senate seats remained to be decided. In Minnesota, following a contested vote recount, Democrat Al Franken appears to have defeated incumbent Republican Norm Coleman by a narrow margin. However, legal challenges to deal with wrongly rejected absentee ballots were anticipated and would be decided by the Minnesota Supreme Court.

In Illinois, the question as to who will replace Sen. Barack Obama when he becomes President turned into a genuine brouhaha. Normally a state governor names a replacement but, in this case, Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich was accused by federal authorities of trying to sell the Senate seat to the highest bidder, raising questions about his authority. Nevertheless, he named Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris as Obama’s replacement. Burris claimed that the appointment was legal, turned up in Washington on January 6–when lawmakers were sworn in on the opening day of the 111th Congress–but was turned away and not recognized.
However, the Senate later agreed to let him take the seat.

In New York, Democratic Governor David Paterson had not yet named a successor to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who will become the Secretary of State.