Delegation has high hopes for Congress in 2008
Timber payments and kids’ health insurance could come up again
By Keith Chu / The Bulletin
December 25, 2007
WASHINGTON — Like a football team trying to score while time winds down, lawmakers scrambled to resolve nearly a year’s worth of big issues in the last two weeks of the congressional calendar. While local politicians and voters said the effort was admirable, they don’t think Congress scored a touchdown.
“I think in the end they were more successful than I anticipated, but still there’s a lot left on the table,” said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, of the end of the session.
Lawmakers passed an energy bill, stopped an automatic tax increase on millions of upper-middle-class Americans and agreed on a federal budget, among other big issues. But they also failed to tackle local issues like county timber payments and re-authorizing the Deschutes River Conservancy.
Work on a mammoth bill governing the nation’s farm programs remains unfinished. And lawmakers punted on a bill that would have increased the number of low-income children eligible for health insurance provided by the federal government.
For Walden, the session’s final two weeks could hardly have gone better. In the face of veto threats by President Bush and a stubborn Republican minority, Democratic leaders in the U.S. House and Senate bowed to Republican demands on a host of issues.
“It turned out better than I would have ever guessed,” said Walden, who represents Central, Eastern and much of Southern Oregon. “I think (Democrats) gave up and said, ‘Let’s get this stuff done and go home.’”
Democrats notably reversed course on the State Children’s Health Care Program, where they passed a bill last week that kept the program at its current size through March 2009.
Democratic leaders and many Senate Republicans pushed for a $35 billion expansion of the program, which provides medical insurance for children whose parents make too much money to qualify for Medicaid. They scuttled that plan after Bush twice vetoed it.
Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., was a top Republican backer of the expansion plan. His spokeswoman, Kimberly Collins, said he hopes Congress takes up another expansion proposal next year.
“Sen. Smith is disappointed that the House and Senate were unable to come to an honorable compromise and deliver to America’s families an improved and expanded children’s health package before the end of the year,” Collins said. “The intent of the (extension) was to ensure that no child loses their health care while Congress debates the future of the program; Sen. Smith certainly hopes that members do not look at the (extension) as a long-term solution.”
Walden, who was also deeply involved in the children’s health care debate, opposed the package backed by Smith and Democrats. Walden said that the bill would have pushed too many children from private insurance onto public programs, and its funding mechanism ended after five years.
But Walden said he hopes to see Congress take another crack next year at ensuring that more children and adults have health insurance. He pointed to a proposal by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., as a creative way to attack the problem. Wyden’s plan would, in general terms, de-couple health insurance from employment, require every individual to buy health insurance and subsidize insurance for people who can’t afford it.
“I think you have to break out of the box,” Walden said. “Sen. Wyden has a proposal that he has developed that is intriguing and will generate a lot of thought.”
Walden wasn’t satisfied with the continued failure of Congress to extend the county timber payments program, which steers millions to rural Oregon governments, including Crook, Deschutes and Jefferson counties.
Lawmakers created the program in 2000 to make up for revenue that disappeared when the logging industry declined in the early 1990s. It expired last year, but lawmakers extended it through this year.
The next chance to extend the program won’t come before March, at the earliest, Walden said. Early in the year, no must-pass bills to which Oregon lawmakers could attach the county payments bill are slated for debate.
“Not a lot gets done (early in the session) and certainly not very fast,” Walden said.
Other local bills — to reauthorize the Deschutes River Conservancy, provide funding for Tumalo Irrigation District conservation projects and let North Unit Irrigation District farmers change the source of some of their water — also remained stalled in either the House or Senate.
Local observers also gave the past year of Congress a mixed grade.
“It was a moderate, moderate performance,” said Bend resident Andrea Blum, the past president of the Deschutes County League of Women Voters. “There were lots of bills I thought should have been passed, but they were bills the president said he would definitely veto.”
One of those bills was the children’s health care program, Blum said.
“It gets very annoying when you see they spent their time on ceremonial things and bills when they can’t come to an agreement on issues that are important,” Blum said.
Janet Bauer, a policy analyst at the left-leaning Oregon Center for Public Policy, said Congress did a generally good job focusing money on infrastructure and aid to low-income families, without increasing the federal deficit. The lone exception was a bill delaying a tax increase on upper-middle class families. Lawmakers passed the bill without finding another way to make up for the funds that tax would have generated.
“Ultimately that is causing the deficit to deepen by $51 billion in 2008, which further worsens the budget situation,” Bauer said.
Blum also wanted to see more debate on how the country should deal with illegal immigration — something the League of Women Voters studied this year and is still trying to come to a consensus on.
“After doing some study on the issue that is so, so complicated, I don’t know how they’re going to resolve that,” Blum said.
Immigration was the top issue for Scott Waters, an alternate delegate to the Deschutes County Republican Party. Waters, who was speaking for himself, not the party, said he wants Congress to crack down on illegal immigration.
“I would fault our president, I would fault him heavily for encouraging illegal immigration,” said Waters, who pointed to Bush’s support for giving some illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. “I would like to know what illegal activity I can do that gets (lawmakers’) full support.”
Congress will reconvene Jan. 15.
Keith Chu can be reached at 202-662-7456 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.