Thursday, December 26, 2002

Ohio congressional delegation sees much work ahead in 2003



By Malia Rulon
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Congress this year created a Homeland Security Department, passed a farm bill and made sweeping changes to public education and elections. Even so, a final budget was never passed and bills dealing with welfare, energy policy and prescription drugs were left for lawmakers to handle in 2003.

"Time out was called before the game was over," said Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur, the delegation's longest-serving Democrat. "The leadership of the House was trying to win an election, so they rolled all the major decisions over into the next year."

Historically, it's difficult to get controversial legislation passed during election years.

In January, the new Congress will return with a Republican majority in the House and Senate, which incoming GOP Chairwoman Deborah Pryce of Ohio says will help Congress get things done.

"The House had a great year. We had a very hardworking, challenging but very productive session," she said. "Much of what we did was held up in the (Democratic controlled) Senate."

Looking back, Ohio's delegation sees many success stories.

"Our biggest success was probably the establishment of this new Department of Homeland Security," said Rep. Rob Portman, who participated on the House committee charged with putting the bill together and also as a congressional liaison to the White House.

"I spent probably more time on that in the last six months than anything else," said Portman, R-Ohio. "It took us a while, but I think we gave the president the authority he needs."

Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said he was pleased that several of his civil service proposals, designed to prevent federal worker shortages, were included in the bill creating the new department. He plans to push other changes in a separate bill next year.

Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, said he was proud to have worked on an overhaul of elections designed to solve the balloting problems in Florida that plagued the 2000 presidential election.

"It started out as a piece of legislation to take care of hanging, dimpled and pregnant chads that we have all come to know and love, but it went on to become one of the most important pieces of legislation this year," said Ney, who chairs the House Administration Committee, which has jurisdiction over election issues.

House Education Chairman John Boehner, a Republican, hosted President Bush in his southwestern Ohio district earlier this year after he helped the president pass his $26.5 billion education bill. The bill, which Bush called his No. 1 domestic priority, requires new reading and math tests, seeks to close the education gap between rich and poor students and raises teacher standards.

Boehner, who is also vice chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, also worked on an overhaul of farm programs that guarantees grain and cotton farmers steadier incomes while adding thousands more producers.

Kaptur, a ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds all agriculture programs, said a major victory of this year's farm bill was getting a provision included that encourages the development of renewable energy.

Rep. Sherrod Brown said a major health victory was the passage of a bioterrorism bill that would spend billions of dollars to stockpile vaccines and help states prepare for a biological disaster. Brown, D-Ohio, worked to include in the bill provisions to address food safety and prevent antibiotic resistance.

After the fall of energy giant Enron Corp. and telecommunications company Global Crossing, House Financial Services Chairman Michael Oxley, a Republican, pushed a bill through Congress to toughen enforcement on corporate wrongdoing.

Boehner and Portman worked on a companion bill that would protect employee pensions and 401(k) retirement savings plans. That bill passed the House but was stalled in the Senate.

"Hopefully next year we can get that done. We have a lot of bipartisan support," Portman said.

Another bill that passed the House but died in the Senate would have continued the welfare changes that Congress first enacted in 1996.

"We'll re-introduce that early next year and hopefully that will be one of the first things we will get done," said Pryce, the bill's chief sponsor.

Looking back, Ohio's delegation said there were a lot of hits and misses in 2002, but the biggest failure was the fact that Congress only passed two of the 13 federal spending bills. These bills make up the federal budget, appropriating federal dollars to everything from the U.S. Park Service to the National Institutes of Health.

"We have got to get that done because a lot of these agencies need to know what they have to work with for the balance of the year," said Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, who is the vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Another big issue left undone was a bill to address a national energy policy. The House and the Senate passed different versions of the measure and weren't able to agree on a final bill.

"That really frustrates me because here we are about to enter into another conflict, possibly, in an area of the world that we depend on for oil," Portman said. "We need to build a consensus on a way to make us more energy independent."

Brown said he was disappointed Congress still hasn't helped seniors pay for the rising cost of prescription drugs.

"Congress didn't do what it should have done on prescription drugs," he said. "We need a program to control the price."

Other issues left undone include former Rep. Tony Hall's bill to shut down the sale of diamonds that pay for African wars by regulating the industry for the first time.

The steel industry was left without an improved loan guarantee program to help bankrupt companies or a health care program for retirees and their families.

In addition, many federal judges, including several for Ohio's 6th U.S. Circuit Court in Cincinnati, weren't confirmed by the Senate.

"It's tragic that so many things didn't go through," Ney said. "Hopefully, in the 108th Congress, it will work."




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