Troubled times light a fire under Congress

Both parties, keen to be seen as leaders, collaborate to move long-deadlocked bills.

This congressional session was supposed to be a bust: With razor-edge voting margins in both the House and Senate, Congress was widely expected to slog along in partisan gridlock until a new election gave one party or the other enough of an edge to move legislation.

But it didn't turn out that way. Terrorist attacks and a spike in corporate accounting scandals have given Congress more focus and impulse to act than it's had in years. And leaders on both sides of the aisle are taking advantage of it.

After a blitz of negotiating last week, Congress passed the most sweeping oversight of corporate America in decades. Then the House voted for a new Department of Homeland Security, the biggest shake-up of the federal bureaucracy since the 1940s.

House and Senate negotiators also broke an eight-year deadlock on granting the president authority to negotiate new trade agreements. The House passed the bill in a nail-biting 215-212 vote only a few hours before dawn on Saturday; it faces an easier vote in the Senate this week.

A hot time for legislation

The last week before the August recess has always been a time when bills move on Capitol Hill, especially in an election year. But this has been anything but a typical session of Congress. A contested presidential election, an evenly divided Senate, and a party switch that gave control of the Senate to Democrats, have given representatives on both sides of the aisle a special incentive to demonstrate that they can govern. And the crisis of corporate accountability and homeland defense has given them outsized issues on which to prove it.

After delivering corporate America its most stinging rebuke in decades with a tough new law on accountability, many lawmakers are eager to demonstrate that they are still responsive to business needs. Within hours of final votes on accountability, House and Senate negotiators announced breakthroughs on the two top issues on the corporate agenda: fast-track trade authority and bankruptcy reform.

Both issues have been bumping around Capitol Hill for so long – and with such intense lobbying from business groups – that they have won the dubious label of "cash cows." MBNA America Bank, a leading advocate for bankruptcy reform, was the single biggest donor to the Bush campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

But with campaign finance reform taking effect after this electoral cycle, the incentive to drag heavily lobbied legislation on year after year could be reduced. Quick resolutions on the trade and bankruptcy bills this fall may be an early signal that that is the case.

The deal on trade authority gives the president the right to negotiate new trade agreements with only a thumbs up or down from Congress. If, as expected, the bill passes, lawmakers will no longer be able to amend trade agreements. The bill would also expand benefits to workers displaced by trade agreements.

The trade compromise nearly unraveled several times before the House vote, but a last-minute appearance on Capitol Hill by President Bush helped firm up support. At a closed meeting in the basement of the Capitol, the president told House Republicans: "I want all of you to really be supportive of this because I need this bill ... (long pause) ... for the American people." ("His rhythm and timing are getting much better," said one member.)

Fast-track leadership

Congressional negotiators say the sudden passage of the long-deadlocked bill was a sign of the times. "Look at the battering the US economy has taken in the last few weeks," says Rep. Bill Thomas (R) of California, who chaired the conference committee on permanent trade authority. "What would have only been game-playing in another time is suddenly a lot more serious. We don't have many options left."

The vote came on such a fast track that most members hadn't even had a chance to read the 304-page bill, circulated over the Internet because there was no time to print it. Some objected to voting after 3 a.m., others to putting corporate America's pet issues at the top of Congress's agenda at such a time. "We're allowing the same corporate cowboys we've been talking about the last three weeks to make the decisions," said Rep. William Pascrell (D) of New Jersey.

Bankruptcy considered

Last week, House and Senate negotiators also reached an agreement on bankruptcy reform, an issue that has been locked in dispute for half a decade. Though a House vote on the agreement was derailed at the last minute by GOP backbenchers, business groups are stepping up pressure to take it up again in September.

But consumer groups who bitterly oppose the bill say the timing could not be more inappropriate. "It is outrageous that Congress would even consider a bill that is being pushed by some of the same corporate lenders that have been accused of ripping off ordinary Americans," says Frank Torres, legislative counsel for the Consumers Union.

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