With public approval of Congress at 10% or below in a number of polls, and with voter wrath directed at incumbents, members of Congress and Senators are starting to realize they have to do something to improve their status in the eyes of the electorate. They are even considering (gasp!) passing two bills on a bipartisan basis and approving stalled judicial nominations. This is not being done in the spirit of compromise and because partisan rancor in the two houses of Congress has suddenly evaporated. It is an effort to show the American people that Congress is not completely dysfunctional and that the two parties can work together on occasion to pass needed legislation.
However, this Kumbaya moment sounds better than it actually is, with intra-party squabbling and inter-party conflict over some of the issues still unresolved. The two bills being considered in the House and Senate are a transportation bill and the JOBS Act (Jumpstart Our Business Startup Act). Unfortunately, the transportation bill passed by the Senate, differs from the one passed by the House and the differences have to be reconciled, a task that may not be so easy. Among other problems, the House bill would eliminate guaranteed funding for mass transit, which would hurt America’s cities and force commuters to pay higher fares.
Under President Reagan’s aegis in 1982, Congress allocated 80% of highway trust revenues to highways, bridges and tunnels and 20% to mass transit. This formula has remained in effect until now. But under the House bill, all revenue would go to highway projects, with a one time payment of $40 billion spread over five years that mass transit would share with other transportation initiatives. Revenue for the $40 billion would supposedly come from off-shore oil and gas drilling leases. The Senate bill keeps the current formula in place, but it’s only for a two year period. And Senate provisions to fund the bill, a pot-pourri of measures that have been criticized as unrealistic, uses ten years of revenue to pay for the two year program. House Speaker Boehner has been under pressure to bring the Senate bill to the floor in the House, as a number of construction jobs would be generated if it passed. But he would have to override objections from the most conservative members of his party to get the legislation enacted and prove to the public that Congress is not in perpetual gridlock. The right-wingers want to include drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve in the bill and cut total spending.
The JOBS Act, which was passed overwhelmingly in the House by both parties, will be debated in the Senate this week and may run into trouble there. Regulations from Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank that curbed predatory behavior by investment bankers would be overturned if the JOBS Act were passed in its current form. The bill, a conglomeration of measures, would cut oversight on new companies going public, reducing consumer protection. Companies would be allowed to raise money through social media over the Internet without filing the standard disclosures. Small investors would be able to be solicited, many of whom are not sophisticated enough to properly evaluate the offerings. Auditing restrictions for small companies moving towards an IPO would also be loosened. In addition, the law would allow investment bankers to publish research on companies whose IPOs they are underwriting, a practice that is now banned since it previously led to abuses. SEC Chairman, Mary Schapiro, in a letter to the Senate Banking Committee noted that the provisions of the bill would weaken protection for small investors and would reduce market transparency. A number of Senate Democrats want to amend the bill to enhance consumer protection, but Senate Republicans led by Mitch McConnell want to see it passed as is. Increased funding for the Export-Import Bank, which helps American company sales overseas, is also a source of conflict, as some Senate Democrats and Republicans want to tie it to the JOBS Act and some Republicans want to eliminate the agency completely.
Nothing ever seems to go smoothly in the two Houses of Congress, even when there are attempts to show Americans that bills can get passed in a bipartisan manner. Good luck.
A VietNam vet and a Columbia history major who became a medical doctor, Bob Levine has watched the evolution of American politics over the past 40 years with increasing alarm. He knows he’s not alone. Partisan grid-lock, massive cash contributions and even more massive expenditures on lobbyists have undermined real democracy, and there is more than just a whiff of corruption emanating from Washington. If the nation is to overcome lockstep partisanship, restore growth to the economy and bring its debt under control, Levine argues that it will require a strong centrist third party to bring about the necessary reforms. Levine’s previous book, Shock Therapy For the American Health Care System took a realist approach to health care from a physician’s informed point of view; Resurrecting Democracy takes a similar pragmatic approach, putting aside ideology and taking a hard look at facts on the ground. In his latest book, Levine shines a light that cuts through the miasma of party propaganda and reactionary thinking, and reveals a new path for American politics. This post is cross posted from his blog.