Unfinished Business

Commentary by Pete du Pont

It's State of the Union time again, and boy has the state of our union changed since last year. Last year, President Bush was busy assembling his new administration, the economy was slowing, as it had since the summer of 2000, and the biggest concern on the international front was whether our new president would be able to hold his own on the world stage.

Now, Bush is leading an international war on terrorism and we find ourselves slowly climbing out of a recession that officially began in March. And after a year in office, Bush, who had lost the popular vote, has a job approval rating floating between 80 and 90 percent.

Yet the more things change, the more they stay them same. Today, as last year, Democrats are bemoaning Bush's plan to stimulate the economy. Today, as last year, Democrats are trying to thwart Bush's plan for energy independence. Today, as last year, Bush is working to get his nominees a fair hearing.

State of the Union addresses typically contain laundry lists of new policy initiatives. This year, however, the president could fill an evening with all the unfinished business from last year. First priority is passage of the $89 billion economic stimulus package originally proposed in October. After negotiations between White House officials and moderate Senate Democrats, the administration dropped some its tax relief proposals, such as capital gains relief, and increased financial assistance for health care benefits - from $3 billion up to $19 billion.

The bipartisan package passed the House in December. While it has the votes to pass the Senate, it has yet to be scheduled for a vote, having failed to engender the support of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Meanwhile, over 800,000 people have lost their jobs since Bush first proposed help.

Closely related to both the war and economic recovery, is a national energy policy. Nothing is more necessary to ensure long-term economic growth while also decreasing America's vulnerability to foreign powers.

The U.S. imports more than 50 percent of our oil, much of it from hostile nations. With U.S. oil consumption likely to grow by one-third over the next 20 years, and electricity demand to increase by more than 45 percent, the U.S. needs an energy policy that will remove political obstacles to domestic production so that oil-rich dictators and terrorists can't hold America's prosperity and foreign policy hostage.

America has large deposits of oil under its public lands and offshore. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), for example, likely contains between six and 16 billion barrels of oil and as much as 28 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. This would easily replace all of the oil imported from Iraq for the next 50 years or from Saudi Arabia for 20 years, and could exceed current U.S. annual natural gas consumption.

Long before the war on terrorism, the administration produced an energy plan. The House passed the proposal during the summer, and all indications are that it would pass the Senate, but once again no vote has been scheduled.

Another crisis is the judicial appointment bottleneck. There are nearly 100 vacancies in the judicial branch, which means that more than 11 percent of all federal courtrooms are presided over by an empty chair. Senate Judiciary Chairman Pat Leahy suggests his committee is doing all it can to move the confirmation process along, but a quick look at the facts argues otherwise.

The Senate has acted on only 21 percent of Bush's circuit court nominees this year. He sent his first batch of 11 circuit nominations to the Senate in May, yet only three have been confirmed. President Clinton, by comparison, waited until August to send his first nominations along, and still 60 percent were confirmed before the Senate adjourned that November. Overall, only 41 percent of Bush's judicial nominees have been confirmed.

Bush should hammer the Senate for failing to act on these and other critical matters. After all, how likely is the Senate to act on controversial new initiatives for Social Security and Medicare reform, if they refuse to pass economic stimulus during a recession? Or act on energy independence during a time of armed conflict in the Middle East and coming on the heals of rolling blackouts in California? Or if they even refuse to hold hearings on judicial nominees, needlessly burdening the federal courts at a time when the FBI is aggressively pursuing threats to our national security at home?






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