Not Enough Time on Their Hands in D.C.?

Quirky Congressional calendars and policy stalemates are nothing new in Washington. For those of that mindset, it appears the rest of 2010 won’t be too upsetting. And with some of the damage Congress has inflicted on businesses of all sizes and their employees over the last few years, maybe that isn’t all bad.

In the House (which doesn’t return until Tuesday), it’s less than three weeks until the August break (starting a week earlier than normal). House members will not be back in Washington until mid-September, with a targeted adjournment date of October 8 in order to hit the campaign trail fulltime in the weeks leading up to the November 2 election. Are we looking at a lame-duck session in November or December — or no action on major items until 2011?

For the Senate, the legislative backlog includes:

  • Seeking two votes (Scott Brown and Olympia Snowe are the top targets) to move the financial regulatory reform conference report
  • A lending pool/tax incentives increase for small businesses, which was originally seen as an opportunity to address other financial issues — including the expiring Bush tax cuts from 2001 and 2003
  • A $75 billion war supplemental that faces a White House veto over issues unrelated to the original intent. The House added $16 billion, including $10 billion to local school districts to help avoid teacher layoffs. Part of the offsets feature recissions in education programs (among them Race to the Top); hence, the White House opposition

CongressDaily reports the following on that bill:

Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye did not include funding for teachers in the measure the Senate approved in May because it was unclear if there was enough support to pass the bill. 

Supporters of the teacher funding will also have to overcome opposition from a group of 13 Democratic senators led by Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., who called the proposed cuts to education programs "unacceptable" in a letter to Inouye earlier this month.

"Choosing between preserving teacher jobs and supporting vital education reforms is a false choice and would set a dangerous precedent," the letter said.

Or school districts could utilize any number of other cost reduction methods instead of simply cutting teachers. If only that suggestion would become part of the common practice.

More Campuses Just Saying No to Smokers

In 2007, about 60 colleges and universities had enacted a smoke-free policy. That number has grown to nearly 400.

There has been some external push. Clean air laws in Illinois, New Jersey and Wisconsin require smoke-free university housing. Smoking is prohibited on all public campuses in Arkansas and at every school (public and private) in Iowa. A couple of big players soon join the list, with no smoking at the University of Florida this fall or at any of the three University of Michigan campuses starting in 2011.

For those that still allow lighting up, more have policies that restrict the number of areas and move smokers away from building entrances. What have student reactions been? According to a CongressDaily story:

A Student Tobacco-Free Task Force was created when the University of Denver went smoke-free in January. Similar associations have been created at other colleges to help enforce the policy and support the change.

However, students who oppose the ban on smoking cigarettes outdoors have not remained silent. Groups of students held daily "smoke-ins" in protest when the University of Pennsylvania attempted to ban smoking at all 14 of its campuses in 2008.

The University of Denver found that about two-thirds of the student population was in favor of banning tobacco. "Interestingly, these divisions were not necessarily based on one’s personal use of tobacco," said Katie Dunker, the assistant director of health promotions at the school. "We had students who use tobacco who were for it and students who didn’t who were against it."

A list from the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation puts campuses of 15 Indiana colleges and universities in the total smoke-free category. There are another nine Hoosier campuses rated smoke-free with the exception of some remote outdoor areas.

Are Voters Eager to Push Policies on Energy and Climate Change? Yes and No

CongressDaily recently offered a report highlighting a distinction that probably warrants passing on.

It seems that, when asked, two-thirds of Americans say it is "very important" for Congress to pass legislation on energy policy. Sounds about right, right? But, only one-third of Americans said the same about climate change.

So it seems a large portion of the electorate puts these two areas of public policy in two different categories (likely because some don’t believe climate change is a valid concern). Shedding some light on the matter is that there is largely a partisan divide here. According to the poll, climate change showed the widest gap between Republicans and Democrats of all the issues that were asked about (including prioritization of job creation, immigration and regulating financial markets). Just 17% of Republicans said it was important to act on climate change, while 47% of Democrats and 29% of independents thought it was.

Is this surprising, or on par with what you’d expect?

Overhauling Medical Malpractice Laws the Right Thing to Do

Malpractice changes have been ignored, for the most part, in the health care reform discussion – now there are numbers to back why this needs to be a part of the solution.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently released data estimating government spending on programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program would decrease by $41 billion over a 10-year period with proper reforms. The reason:  Physicians would no longer overuse tests as a way to protect themselves from lawsuits.

Changes in the malpractice system would also cut national health care spending by 0.5% a year ($11 billion in 2009). No, that doesn’t solve all the problems, but trying to fix the lawsuit-happy world we are living in is a step in the right direction.

CongressDaily reports the CBO’s analysis is based on a few reform factors such as capping noneconomic damages at $250,000 and punitive damages at $500,000. It also calculated the numbers based on a one-year statute of limitation for adults and three years for children from the time the injury is discovered.

A few senators rightly shared their support for reform (and dismay for dawdling Democrats), CongressDaily shares:

"This is an important step in the right direction, and these numbers show that this problem deserves more than lip service from policymakers," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "Unfortunately, up to now, that has been all the president and his Democratic allies in Congress have been willing to provide on these issues." Hatch had requested the updated analysis from CBO.

Senate Finance ranking member Charles Grassley and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn of Texas also expressed disappointment that Democrats have not cracked down on medical liability issues. Cornyn urged senators to "take account of the CBO’s objective numbers and the experience of Texas and other states where healthcare access and affordability have been improved by setting reasonable limits on lawsuits against doctors."

Democrats are reluctant to cap payouts from medical liability lawsuits. But President Obama recently directed HHS Secretary Sebelius to look at ways to make changes to the system that will bring down spending.

CBO’s analysis makes a clear argument that malpractice reform should be part of health care reform discussions. Still, supporters have their work cut out for them based on this outlandish comment:

The findings "reiterate what we’ve always known: that medical malpractice claims have almost no effect on overall healthcare spending," said American Association of Justice President Anthony Tarricone. "The vast majority of empirical evidence suggests that there are only minuscule savings to be found in reforming our nation’s civil justice system."

An Endorsement — Not — for Palin

I don’t feel I’m exactly going out on a limb when I say I don’t consider Sarah Palin a legitimate presidential candidate in 2012. It’s a little more interesting, however, when a key Republican player addresses the topic.

Steve Schmidt was chief strategist for John McCain’s presidential run. He said this last week about the former Alaska governor:  "My honest view is that she would not be a winning candidate for the Republican Party, and in fact were she to be the nominee, we could have a catastrophic result."

The CongressDaily update from the National Journal also reported:

Schmidt, who backed McCain’s choice of Palin as his running mate but clashed with her advisers, added: "I don’t think it’s inconceivable that she could be the Republican nominee for president of the United States. I think it’s almost inconceivable that she could be elected president of the United States."

Schmidt’s assessment came as he shared the stage with longtime Democratic strategist Bob Shrum at a forum sponsored by the Atlantic and the Aspen Institute.

Shrum jumped in as soon as Schmidt suggested Palin couldn’t win, joking, "Let me endorse Sarah Palin for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012."

The public perception of Palin during the campaign and her subsequent messy exit from the governor’s post will, in this corner, leave her a popular speaker/guest at events of all kinds but not a serious candidate on the national stage.