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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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:

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• 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.

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.

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."

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