Congress in 2003: from tigers to Medicare
Lawmakers acted on measures that affect Americans in major ways, but at a price - in debt and partisan rancor.
Midway through the 108th Congress - and on the eve of a presidential election year - lawmakers are amassing a legislative record that will touch every home in America.Skip to next paragraph
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Some new laws address hot-button issues, from child abduction and to those irksome telemarketers who always call just when the lasagna is ready for dinner. And then there's the new worry of waking up to a tiger next door, after reports that exotic pets have become a big underground business.
Republican control of both House and Senate also allowed some unusually significant policy changes. Some of these have been batted around for years, only now gaining enough momentum and votes. These include:
• A major drug entitlement in Medicare, expected to cost $2.4 trillion over the next 20 years.
• Health savings accounts, which offer working Americans new ways to shield large sums from the taxman.
• Tacit approval of White House plans to outsource 1 in 2 federal jobs nationwide, affecting millions of workers - and perhaps saving money for taxpayers.
• Dipping a toe, for the first time, into school vouchers. Federal education funds in Washington, D.C., are poised to be put in the hands of parents, who may use the money for private or parochial schools.
It's a session that, in a phrase favored by GOP leadership, "produced product," but at a price: intense partisan rancor and huge deficits. The legislative branch also lost virtually every end-of-year dispute with the White House and comes out of the session seriously weakened.
The GOP tactic of virtually locking the minority out of negotiations on key bills angered Democrats. So did last month's Medicare "long count," when House leaders extended a 15-minute vote into nearly three hours, until enough votes were switched to change the outcome.
"It's the single most partisan session of Congress I've ever participated in," says Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, who promises to block a vote to wrap up spending bills for FY 2004 when Congress returns on Jan. 20. The new fiscal year began Oct. 1.
Despite a deficit expected to reach half a trillion dollars this year, Congress is digging the hole deeper to fund lots of "pork." Many of these projects wedged into an $820 billion spending bill will also have an impact on families.
For example, once this wrap-up spending bill passes, which is likely in January, families in St. Augustine, Fla., can look forward to lower green fees, thanks to a $2 million program to make golf more affordable in that community. Prospects for Iowa's jungle experts are also looking up, thanks to $50 million for an indoor rain forest in that state, home of the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
The accretion of such spending will weigh heavily on taxpayers, who have to foot the bill. "The problem is that once the dam is broken and you're deeply in deficits, politicians start thinking, 'What's the difference between $500 billion and $600 billion?' " says Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group in Washington.
Still, for now, the federal tax bill has some sweeteners for most families. Some 25 million families received checks last summer after Congress increased the child tax credit from $600 to $1,000 per child. In addition, individual income-tax brackets were reduced at least 2 percentage points, to the rates of 25 percent, 28 percent, 33 percent, and 36.6 percent for the years 2003 and 2004. The lowest 10 percent bracket remains the same. Taxpayers can also claim $4,000 for tuition and other higher-education expenses, up from $3,000 in 2003, and increase tax-deferred contributions to retirement plans.