The Last Days of Congress

The 106th Congress is rapidly drawing to a close, with both sides of the aisle racing to finish the appropriations bills this week and then return to their districts to campaign. Unfortunately, however, this Congress will not be able to look back with satisfaction upon its achievements of the past two years: Too many pieces of necessary legislation--many with strong bipartisan support--have fallen through the cracks and been left off the Republican leadership's calendar. When voters go the polls this November, they should remember the needs that Congress could have met but instead chose to ignore.

The easiest problems for Congress to correct are those that have been caused by the laws themselves. All Congress needs to do is take a vote and gross examples of unfairness disappear. Unfortunately, Congress has not acted on three simple bills that presented opportunities to fix the barbaric 1996 immigration law. The first bill, which was dropped in a GOP closed-door session earlier this month, would have restored health care benefits for pregnant legal immigrants and their newborn children. Such Medicare coverage was cut in 1996, even though legal immigrants pay taxes and have to bear all the responsibilities of citizens. Beyond the moral abhorrence of denying health care to newborns, there is a compelling financial argument against the 1996 cuts: Society's costs in providing competent prenatal and perinatal care are far less than those of hospitals in treating complications in pregnancy or dangerous childhood illnesses. It is therefore sad that the legislation was dropped--and easy to understand why the deal took place behind closed doors.

Similarly needless cruelty could have been prevented by a second bill, the Latino and Immigrant Fairness Act, which would have corrected bureaucratic mistakes by the Immigration and Naturalization Service that denied legal status to many immigrants granted amnesty by Congress. Although these individuals have lived in the country for decades, they could be deported at any time simply because the INS erred in processing their applications. The bill would also have allowed immigrants changing their legal status to pay a $1,000 fee and remain in the country while applying, rather than have to leave the U.S. and reapply for admission. Finally, it would have granted to Haitians and many other Central Americans who fled repressive governments the same status that is currently granted to Nicaraguans and Cubans who fled similar circumstances. The Republican congressional leadership is opposed to the bill, and although the administration has fought for it, its future seems bleak.


A third bill, the Secret Evidence Repeal Act, would have removed another provision of the 1996 law that violated basic principles of judicial fairness. Under the 1996 law, immigrants can be deported without being allowed to see the evidence on which their deportation is based, depriving them of all chance to present a defense. Many of the victims of the bill have been Arab-Americans: In one recent case, an Egyptian immigrant was detained without bond for three years on secret evidence until an immigration judge dismissed all the evidence as inadmissable hearsay. The bill has broad support, but it is still stuck in a Senate committee and has not yet been debated on the floor of the House.

Beyond immigration, other issues of fairness still remain untouched, such as hiring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Although a bill to end such discrimination was introduced more than a year ago and contains exemptions (for instance, for religious entities) designed to ease its passage, it has not received so much as a committee hearing. Similarly, a hate-crimes measure recently struck from the Defense Department appropriations bill by Senate Republicans would have added sexual orientation to the list of protected categories. Even philosophical opponents of hate-crimes laws must recognize that nothing is gained by arbitrarily excluding certain victims.

Finally, there are some issues on which the American people do not have the time to wait for congressional action. The Innocence Protection Act, which has scores of co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, has been stuck in committee since its introduction. The bill would ensure the testing and preservation of DNA evidence and the provision of competent counsel in death-penalty cases. More than 85 individuals on Death Row have already been exonerated, a number of whom would have been executed had it not been for the availability of DNA evidence. Yet every day, more biological samples are destroyed that could potentially prove someone's innocence and help convict the guilty party; the bill would provide for the preservation and testing of such evidence in certain cases and needs to be enacted before any more innocent people are sentenced to death.

Looking at the legislative record, it is easy to see that Congress had plenty of time in the past two years to pass such common-sense measures. Recently, the House leaders dedicated a full floor debate to a resolution critical of the Boy Scouts just for the opportunity to belittle it publicly. If the Congress had the time to waste floor debates on bills that were nothing but political statements, it had the time to vote and pass legislation that would have made a political statement by improving Americans' lives. On some bills, such as the McCain-Feingold campaign finance plan and a measure to correct retroactive immigration restrictions, there is still hope for agreement: The Republican congressional majority should view these bills as its last chance for partial redemption before the Nov. 7 elections.

Recommended Articles