Congress' rush for credit

The Democratic congressional leadership is anxious to put some points on the legislative scoreboard before it leaves for its summer break. Last week, lawmakers made progress with one of their top priorities: a homeland security bill contains some useful improvements, though it is not as good as it could have been or as its sponsors claim. Meanwhile, Democrats slid back into farm business as usual with passage of a bill that preserves wasteful subsidies.

The newly brokered deal to pass a bill based on the Sept. 11 commission's recommendations revives the first proposal the House considered this session and a part of the Democrats' "Six in '06" campaign platform. The bill was stuck for months after differing versions passed each chamber, but House and Senate negotiators settled their differences last week. The resulting legislation contains some helpful provisions. It would authorize grants for improving security on vulnerable public transportation networks, for example. It would also rejigger the formula for distributing homeland security grants to states, decreasing the amount each state must receive under the law — which would have the effect of increasing the amount of money available to the areas of the country most at risk.

Even so, we see no compelling reason for any amount of money to be reserved for states that face little chance of terrorist attack. The bill also would require the Department of Homeland Security to develop in just five years the technology, know-how and international agreements necessary to scan all sea containers bound for the United States — an almost certainly impossible task. This mandate was approved even though Congress already created a pilot program last September to test the feasibility of scanning all containers. Fortunately, congressional negotiators inserted language that would allow the homeland security secretary to push off the deadline by two-year increments under certain circumstances — a loophole that will no doubt create a biannual ritual for the DHS.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and her House leadership also deserve discredit for forcing through an irresponsible farm bill that renews an indefensible subsidy system. The legislation does include some necessary funding increases, in nutrition and conservation programs, for example, and a (high) income cap for subsidy payments. But it otherwise fails to significantly improve on the bad farm payments system designed in 2002. This farm bill might help a few Democratic lawmakers from predominantly agricultural districts, but it defrauds nearly everyone else in the country. Unlike the Sept. 11 bill, this is no accomplishment, and President Bush would be justified in vetoing the House's version.

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