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No time for fine print

Politics | Lawmakers fast-track energy and health legislation without warning labels for taxpayers

Issue: "Crackdown," July 18, 2009

With the clock running down on House Democrats' pledge to pass a climate change bill before July 4th, anxious Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., tried to cut short House Minority Leader John Boehner's protest speech.

"Is this an attempt to try to get some people to leave on a close vote?" Waxman asked June 26 amid laughter from Democrats on the House floor.

Told that House custom places no time limit on leaders, Boehner, R-Ohio, grinned and pressed on-for more than an hour. "This is the biggest job-killing bill that's ever been on the floor of the House," he protested to Republican applause. Boehner, tearing a page from the Senate filibuster playbook, recited long sections from a 300-page amendment added at 3 a.m. The soliloquy included sections creating "energy-efficient loan standards" and "green" banking centers. "Don't you think the American people expect us to understand what's in this bill before we vote on it?"

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But Boehner's pleadings fell just short. By a seven-vote margin, the energy overhaul passed after a mere five hours of debate (including Boehner's 60-minute rant), 219-212.

Now the nation is one step closer to government regulation of greenhouse gas emissions by a confusing web of nearly 20 federal agencies. The bill imposes unprecedented carbon dioxide limits and downsizes the use of coal and other fossil fuels.

Even Democrats agreed the legislation would create higher energy costs of up to $111 per family each year. But studies warn of greater hikes of $1,600 to $3,000 to family utility bills.

And this Congress' high stakes game of fast-tracking legislation is just beginning. While the Senate takes up the energy bill, congressional leaders during the next five weeks are planning to release another summer blockbuster: comprehensive health care changes.

Lawmakers hit the pause button on remaking health care after the Congressional Budget Office slapped a $1.6 trillion price tag to the Senate Finance Committee's proposal-a number that surprised even Democrats. But with a promised August release date for the overhaul, Congress is expected to accelerate the healthcare debate throughout July. With five separate congressional committee's working on legislation, it is easy to get lost in the healthcare maze.

Democrats are pushing for insurance mandates with tax penalties for those who refuse coverage. Medicaid will be expanded to those making higher incomes and a new government-run insurance option will be unleashed to compete with private plans. That move alone could result in nearly 120 million Americans losing their private coverage as insurers struggle to compete with a public plan that would boast 30 percent lower premiums.

"Americans are facing a federal takeover of the nation's healthcare sector," predicted the Heritage Foundation's Robert Moffit.

To pay for the healthcare controls, lawmakers have proposed a bevy of tax hikes paired with new limits on the amount of tax deductions Americans can itemize. A Democrat plan to tax employer-sponsored health benefits would raise $300 billion in federal coffers but would break President Barack Obama's campaign pledge not to raise taxes on the middle class.

Republicans are still waiting for many of the healthcare details. Staffers are fearful of another 3 a.m. amendment dump like what happened with the energy bill vote. Democrats seem eager to pass these major initiatives using arbitrary deadlines before lawmakers and the American people get too familiar with the details.
-with reporting by Jacob Parrish

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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