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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.

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In a flurry of lawmaking to make a difference in the lives of voters, Congress passed new laws targeting telemarketers and unsolicited e-mail. Beginning Oct. 1, consumers could sign up for a Do Not Call registry. While stopping short of outlawing spam, as some states have done, Congress now requires spammers to give consumers an opt-out, with five-year jail terms for violators.

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Those worried about the tiger who attacked his owner in a New York City apartment in October can take comfort from a law passed this week that makes it illegal to buy, sell, or possess any lion, tiger, leopard, cheetah, jaguar, or cougar, unless you are a zoo, circus, or university.

Despite opposition from environmentalists, Congress also voted to open some 20 million acres of federal lands to loggers. The Healthy Forest Initiative to aims to thin forests and curb wildfires, such as those that charred over 750,000 acres in California last October. Opponents say it mainly benefits timber companies.

But some of the most significant initiatives of the 108th Congress are the sleepers. Here are a few to watch.

Health Savings Accounts: Beginning Jan. 1, Americans can contribute up to $4,500 a year to a Health Savings Account (HSA) to help pay for unreimbursed medical expenses. Like an Individual Retirement Accounts, contributions are not taxed going in and accumulate interest, tax free. Conservative activists say they could change public thinking on the value of privatized healthcare.

"At the creation of IRAs, 15 percent of the population owned stock. Now 60 percent and 70 percent of voters own stock, and because of that we are poised to make Social Security fully funded and privatized," says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. HSAs could have the same impact, he says.

D.C. school vouchers: The plan, part of the omnibus spending bill yet to be passed by the Senate, offers publicly funded scholarships to students in failing public schools. The $14 million plan covers only up to 1,700 students in the nation's capital, as part of a five-year demonstration project. But supporters say it will give a powerful impulse to voucher bids in other cities and states.

"It's a hugely symbolic victory for school choice nationwide, because more than any other city, Washington, D.C.'s school system has the capacity to acquire a national spotlight," says Clint Bolick of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm that defends school-choice programs.

Opponents say that vouchers will sap resources from public schools - and begin to shift the government's burden from producing quality public schools to giving parents options to choose private schools.

"Partial-birth" abortion ban: This is the first federal law restricting abortion since the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973. It's the first step in what conservative lawmakers hope will roll back abortion rights by assigning legal rights to a fetus.

Related issues likely to come up in the next session include limits on stem-cell research and bills that would give the unborn the status of victims in a crime.

Also significant are administration moves that Congress did not reverse. These include a failure to challenge new Labor Department rules that would take away the rights of some white-collar workers to overtime pay. And so far, Congress has not checked administration efforts to move federal jobs into the private sector.

Civil libertarians are also alarmed that Congress has not intervened to make the executive branch ensure that US citizens held in connection with the war on terrorism have access to courts. "The judiciary is supposed to oversee the way the executive treats individuals," says David Boaz of the Cato Institute, "but if you deny the prisoner any access to judges, it's very hard to do anything about this."