While You Were Out

As the media chased scandal, the sneaky 105th Congress has been passing a stack of bad laws that could change your life. Here's a look.

| Tue Oct. 20, 1998 3:00 AM EDT

The 105th Congress is oft-labeled a "do-nothing" Congress, but that label is something of a misnomer. Although it's true the 105th has passed far fewer pieces of legislation than the original do-nothing Congress that bedeviled Harry Truman, and lately has been consumed by a thrilling impeachment inquiry, they have been far from inactive. As the sun sets on the 105th, the MoJo Wire brings you their greatest hits, many of which have been buried in the recent slewinsky of scandal stories. (If you would like to view any of the following legislation in its entirety, you may do so online at Thomas.)

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The Magic Omnibus
A colossus born of procrastination, the $500 billion Omnibus Consolidated and Emergency Appropriations Act of 1999 is squeaking through at the last possible moment; it's scheduled for a vote today in the House and tomorrow in the Senate. In addition to setting much of the federal budget, it also includes plenty of controversial legislation, some of it added behind closed doors in the notorious "rider" process. Because there's tremendous pressure to pass this spending bill and avert another government shutdown, many lawmakers have stuffed their unpopular measures into the must-pass bill.

For starters, the bill includes $18 billion earmarked for the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Citing the IMF's ineffectiveness in Russia and Asia, many critics are opposed to giving the agency more money until it could prove itself a more effective counterbalance to global economic disasters.

Also in the bill is a measure to combat Web pornography, commonly referred to as the Communications Decency Act II, or "Son of CDA" by its opponents. The bill holds operators of commercial Web sites liable for up to six months in prison and $50,000 in fines for failure to verify an adult's age before providing content deemed harmful to minors. Civil-liberties and free-speech advocates are vehemently opposed to the measure. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, American Civil Liberties Union, and Electronic Privacy Information Center have all vowed to challenge the bill in court.

Although a number of "anti-environmental" measures were struck from the Omnibus bill, it still contains several riders that have environmentalists worried. In an alert issued yesterday, the Sierra Club warned that riders on the bill would effectively increase logging in California, waive environmental laws to continue destructive grazing on public lands, delay mining reform on public lands, and promote oil drilling and development in sensitive coastal areas.

Big Brother Showdown
National ID cards also became a hot potato in the Omnibus bill. The 1997 Omnibus spending package contained language that directed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to force states to standardize driver's licenses. The measure, promoted by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) as a check on illegal immigrants, was widely seen as a first step toward establishing a "Big Brother" system of national ID cards. In June, Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) began hearings to debate the idea and drafted a free-standing bill that would have repealed NHTSA's attempts to federalize driver's license information.

Barr's bill never came to a vote, but House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) promised to put a moratorium on NHTSA's efforts in this year's Omnibus package. When Smith interceded and convinced the speaker to strip out the moratorium, the watchdogs were ready: A coalition of libertarian and conservative groups began an Internet-based lobbying effort to have the moratorium put back in. As a result, Gingrich restored the one-year moratorium, preventing NHTSA from taking any further steps towards establishing the system.

Return of Lott's Lemon
Another issue dropped from the Omnibus was an auto-salvage bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). The bill would create national standards for the definition of wrecked and salvaged cars. However, consumer groups and state attorneys general opposed the measure, saying that it created a standard that, while useful for insurance companies and car dealers, was bad for consumers. Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, said that the bill came within three votes of being killed in the House, and then Lott inserted it into the Omnibus bill amidst the impeachment circus. "If we'd had a faster fax machine, we might have stopped it," Shahan lamented. "Lott is so sleazy, the bill is sleazy, the whole process is so sleazy." Lott removed the measure after the White House balked at it.

The Poor Don't Count
One fiercely contended issue in the Omnibus bill was how the U.S. Census will be conducted in 2000. Republicans want to keep the traditional "head-count" method; Congressional Democrats and the White House, however, want to move to a system that augments the head count with some statistical sampling. Sampling, they argue, would produce a more accurate reflection of our nation's population, as it would take into account the poor and homeless who don't show up in the head count.

The real reason for the down-to-the-wire fight? The census determines how the U.S. House of Representatives will be made up. A census that counted New York City's homeless population, for example, would give the city more representatives than one that did not. In essence, the Democrats think they can pick up seats in the House with statistical sampling; the Republicans would rather stick with the current method for the same reason. The Omnibus bill would fund the census only until June 1999 to avoid paying for any sampling, pending a court decision on the question.

The Bankruptcy Bill
Credit card companies and associated PACs contributed over $3.2 million to Congress members during this election cycle; now they have a tough new bill in the works that makes it harder for consumers to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection -- the section of the bankruptcy law providing debt relief. Under Senate bill S. 1301, or the Consumer Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1998, consumers would have to try to restructure their debts before filing Chapter 7. This is a boon to credit card companies, who would rather see consumers restructure their debt under Chapter 13, than erase it under Chapter 7. A staffer for the bill's sponsor, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), says the bill will not come to a vote during this legislative session.

Digital Millennium Copyright Act
This bill, H.R. 2281, which has cleared the House and Senate, is meant "to implement the World Intellectual Property Organization Copyright Treaty and Performances and Phonograms Treaty." Basically, it seeks to provide better intellectual property protection in the digital age. Although the bill means well, many feel it is an example of Congress legislating an issue they don't really understand. The copyright act contains anti-circumvention measures which would make it a crime to possess technology that would circumvent some types of piracy lockouts. However, it ignores how computer scientists and cryptographers test the security of such systems, which requires some sort of circumvention technology. "It's very short-sighted in the sense that we all make use of a broad range of this technology," states Alex Fowler, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

What Could Have Been
Just as important as the legislation the 105th passed was the legislation the 105th killed. Remember campaign finance reform? Although it seemed there was no bigger issue in late 1997 and early 1998, when it got down to brass tacks, our elected representatives weren't willing to change the cash-corrupted system that put them in office. Thus, the American public is still at the mercy of PACs, corporate lobbying, and soft-money "issue ads" as Congress continues to support a system of legalized bribery.

Another failed initiative was the Patient's Bill of Rights. This bill would have taken some of the power back from insurance companies and handed it over to patients. Under the bill, patients in HMOs would have the right to see a specialist, and the right to privacy for their medical records. In addition, the bill would have given more decision-making powers to doctors instead of leaving treatment decisions up to insurance companies. However, the bill died, perhaps due to the $7,553,571 insurance PACs ponied up to federal candidates during the 1997-98 election cycle.

Come On and Take a Free Ride
For years, Congress has attached "riders" to bills that often have very little -- or nothing at all -- to do with the original bill. It's their sneaky way of passing laws that can't withstand the scrutiny of a full floor debate or survive a vote as a free-standing bill. The 105th Congress was no different, tacking on riders that couldn't cut it alone. Among the anti-environmental riders that floated through Congress this year was a measure tacked onto H.R. 4328, the House's 1999 transportation spending bill, that would freeze gas mileage standards, known as corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, at their current rate for another year -- a big favor for auto and oil companies. That bill is currently in conference, where the House and Senate are hammering out an agreement on their two versions of the same bill.

Another rider, hidden in the Senate's Interior Department spending bill, S. 2237, would postpone a reform in the method of calculating royalties that oil companies must pay for drilling on federal land -- another treat for the oil companies. This bill has been tabled, but could come up again before Congress adjourns for the year.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game
Sports Illustrated called 1998 the greatest season ever for our national pastime, and Congress took note. Although they may not have done much else this year, our Congressional leaders did find the time to go baseball crazy. The House passed two resolutions, H.Res. 536 and 520, congratulating sluggers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, while the Senate passed resolutions S. Res. 273 and 268, recognizing McGwire's home run record and congratulating the Toms River East American Little League team for winning the Little League World Series. Also passing the Senate was S. 2531, a bill designating a stretch of I-70 running through Missouri as the "Mark McGwire Interstate Route 70."

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