Congress is back on the job today, at least in the Senate. The House just had to have one more day off to refresh them for the ideological agenda-setting ahead. The return to session comes at a time when polls show a total collapse in confidence in Congress’ ability to do their job, and a general pessimism about the prospects for a turnaround in the economy. The big story of the week will be the President’s jobs speech on Thursday. But what will Congress do when left to their own devices?
Exceedingly little. The House’s first three bills of the week are from the suspension calendar. In other words, they are noncontroversial pieces of legislation, on such important public matters as “Authorizing the use of the Capitol Grounds for the District of Columbia Special Olympics Law Enforcement Torch Run.” The rest of the week will consist of the kickoff of House Republicans’ anti-regulatory agenda, premised on the mistaken belief that over-regulation is costing jobs in the private sector. Not only is this not true, but the public sector will suffer if monitors and regulators get called off the job, to say nothing of the suspension of capital upgrades from factories if major regulations are delayed. So the House will pursue an anti-jobs agenda over the next couple of months.
As for the Senate, today they have one federal judicial nomination to attend to. After that they will consider a cloture vote on a motion to proceed for the patent reform bill, which has for some reason become a talking point for the President when he discusses jobs. I don’t know if you can find one economist to tell you that the patent bill will be an immediate job creator, but that’s the President’s story and he’s sticking to it.
The Senate will attempt to pass the House version of the bill, so they don’t have to return it to the lower chamber. After years of the House having to accept whatever the Senate produces, now we have the other way around. And it could get difficult:
But debate is brewing again over so called “fee diversion,” a popular provision that would have given the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office full control of the fees it collects.
Critics have accused congressional appropriators of siphoning off nearly $1 billion from the Patent and Trademark Office to fund other programs. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and others argued that when the fees don’t fund patent services, they become a de-facto tax on patents. The White House expressed concern that the House version didn’t end fee diversion, but has not indicated that it would stand in the way.
House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who forged the companion House version, was forced to compromise with congressional appropriators and weaken the fee-diversion protections earlier this year.
This may not derail the bill, but certainly Coburn has experience at bill derailment. But since the patent bill represents corporate interests fighting with each other over how best to rig the economy for their purposes, I’m not sure why I should care. I should care about patents in the abstract, particularly about ending the patent protection that forces prescription drug prices higher here than anywhere in the world, but I’m not sure why I should care about this bill.
The only other bill on the horizon with a chance to pass both houses in the near future is the set of free trade agreements, but given Mitch McConnell’s op-ed today, accusing the White House of deliberately holding up the process, there’s less reason to believe that they’ll succeed. Republicans want to kill the Trade Adjustment Assistance provisions that the President demanded as a sweetener for Democrats to get the bills through.
By the middle of the month, the FAA authorization runs out, and by the end of the month the highway authorization expires. And there is emergency supplemental funding of FEMA that must be done to pay for the damages from Hurricane Irene and other disasters. So Congress will do well just to avoid pitfalls in the next month, let alone create anything new.
All in all, there’s not much to dispel the belief that Congress is paralyzed to do anything about our historic jobs crisis. Hopefully some thoughts are being made to programs that can be carried out without their participation.