109th Congress

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(HOST) As members of congress return home for the final weeks of mid-term election campaigning, commentator Olin Robison is taking stock of what they’ve accomplished – and what they haven’t.

(ROBISON) The celebrated cowboy/comedian Will Rogers used to have a one-liner in which he would say to his audiences something to the effect that “the nation is at risk. The Congress is in session.”

Well, dear friends, the second session of the 109th Congress has been sitting for quite some time now, and they are right now struggling to make it to a recess, so they can all go home to campaign to get re-elected. The Republicans are anxious, and the Democrats are hopeful.

It is safe to say that this has NOT been one of the most productive Congresses in our nation’s history. Far from it.

They, like so many of their predecessor Congresses, managed to get the government, perhaps I should say Our Government, into the new fiscal year without a budget.

Yes, that’s right. The governmental fiscal year runs from October 1 until September 30. We are right now in fiscal year 2007.

Relatively few times over the last generation or two has the Congress actually completed a budget on time. So the government, or at least most of it, goes forward under a so-called “omnibus continuing resolution.” Under this bit of legerdomain, most government agencies continue to function under the assumption that they have the same amount of money this year as they had last year. For most it will be January or even February before they have a real budget.

The exception to all this nonsense this year is that during the last few days of September our elected political leaders did manage to pass a new Department of Defense appropriation – almost half a trillion dollars this time – which, when you think about it, is an awful lot of money! And, along the way, they found time to pass new legislation authorizing the President or his surrogates to do whatever they deemed necessary in the War on Terror. This was not, in my opinion, the Senate’s finest hour. And there was time to pass a new law and appropriate the money to build a new seven hundred mile fence along the Mexican border. And they protected the American public by passing a law banning online betting. And the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives rushed to publicly disclaim any previous knowledge of their longtime colleague Mark Foley’s dubious behavior regarding congressional pages, despite the fact that much of it appears to have been rather common knowledge on Capitol Hill.

But wait. I am clearly being naive. It is an ELECTION YEAR and so all of these seemingly tangential matters are super urgent right now.

And yes, I am of course being sarcastic. Unhappily, I share Will Roger’s suspicions. That is not, by the way, a partisan act. But do I think that very much is likely to change any time soon? Probably not.

What I lament the most is the lack of elemental civility in the Congress these days, and of course there is no news in that either. And then, of course, there are all those lobbyists. They are far, far greater in number than the number of congresspersons and senators. The ratio is approximately sixty-five to one – yes, friends: that’s sixty-five lobbyists for every member of the House and Senate combined. And the amount of money spent by lobbyists to influence members of Congress is scandulous by any measure.

So, stay tuned. We have a new election not so far away now. Maybe the results will bring into Washington a group of people who think differently and therefore who will behave differently. Or maybe not. We’ll see.

Olin Robison is past president of both the Salzburg Seminar and Middlebury College. He now lives in Shelburne.

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