Congress gears up to earn its keep

OUR OPINION: BETTER WORK SCHEDULE MAY IMPROVE LEGISLATIVE PROCESS

For Immediate Release:

December 13, 2006

Contact:Miami Herald

The 109th Congress that mercifully expired last week was not one to over-burden itself with work. In session for a mere 103 days this year -- seven fewer than the notorious ''Do-Nothing Congress'' of 1948 -- it left town without fulfilling its duty to approve a budget. Clearly, the legislative process is broken, but Democrats say they have a plan to make it work when they take over next year.

Move to Washington

The first step is to go back to a five-day work week. Incoming House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said this would include scheduling votes on Monday. This gives members an incentive to return from their home districts at the start of the week or be recorded as absent for votes, which is not something to boast about at election time. Maybe it will also keep them from taking too many lobbyist-paid golf outings to Scotland, too.

Some members -- notably, Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga. -- have grumbled that this is not a family-friendly policy because it deprives them from spending time with their loved ones back home. Duh. Mr. Kingston could solve the problem by moving his family to Washington -- or did he not know when he ran for the $165,000-a-year post where Capitol Hill is located?

As for the budget, the leaders of the incoming Congress have come up a plan that is practical, even if well short of ideal.

Instead of starting out by wrangling over unfinished business, congressional leaders will simply extend the current ''continuing resolution'' that is now set to expire in mid-February until the end of the fiscal year next September.

This means the federal government will have to abide by the same spending limitations as the budget for the last fiscal year. That is unsatisfactory on several levels. It ignores new priorities and fails to make adjustments in how to spend $463 billion to cover virtually every domestic program except defense and homeland security.

Yet it allows the new Congress to tackle its own agenda and conduct a more-sensible budgeting process for the next fiscal year. In addition, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, the Democratic chairmen of the Senate and House Appropriation Committees, say they will kill thousands of ''earmarks'' in pending budget bills.

Wait for the results

These are the pork-barrel projects that sometimes are used to fund worthy local projects, but too often represent an abuse of the system, as in the notorious ''bridge to nowhere.'' The earmark process has been ill-used over the years. Calling a time out is a good idea.

We'll withhold applause until we see results. Still, Congress' new leaders seem to understand the need to respond to the public's frustration with Washington.