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Washington Calling

Washington two-step ... Hill staffing ... Firetraps
by Lance Gay
Scripps Howard News Service


January 14, 2005

Washington - Here's another example of that old Potomac Two-Step: say you're going to do something, commit yourself to it by publicly signing a pledge - then forget about it.

A decade ago, Republicans stormed into Congress with their "Contract With America" that pushed through new rules ending the practice of ordering states to carry out laws without providing the funding - leaving it to the states to increase taxes needed to pay for costly programs.

So how are the lawmakers meeting their promises?

- As part of the legislation reordering America's intelligence agency, Congress included provisions directing states to issue unified national driver's licenses. Cost to states this year: $60 million. Federal contribution: zip.

- Under Patriot Act provisions taking effect this month, states are required to vet 2 million truck drivers to weed out security threats. Cost to states: $600 million. Federal funding: zip.

- Prohibitions on states imposing Internet taxes until 2007. Cost to states: $327 million. Federal money: zip.

How could this happen when the Contract With America rules said it can't? Ah, there's a loophole: Contract with America rules require one lawmaker to stand up and voice an objection. But Senate records show that since the rule was adopted in 1996, not one senator has felt bestirred enough to object _ even though the Congressional Budget Office estimates 12 percent of the bills that have passed over their desks since 1996 contained expensive directives for state and local governments to carry out.

After spending five years scrutinizing penile-enlargement devices, the Food and Drug Administration has decided it won't require government approval before the machines are brought to market. The FDA does favor warning labels informing users to stop using the devices "if pain occurs," and cautioning users not to operate them when under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The government said it also wants the notification: "Constriction rings do not prevent pregnancy."

The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is continuing operations even though it is a notorious Washington firetrap lacking a sprinkler system that could save the lives of the well-heeled attending fiery German operas. The Kennedy Center planned to install sprinklers in 1998, but put off the construction work because it would disrupt the opera season every year. It's currently on the 2006 work schedule.

Department of Homeland Security controls over sharing information on vulnerabilities at U.S. airports and ports are so tight that agency employees concluded they couldn't discuss vulnerabilities they identified with haulers of hazardous materials _ even though lives could be lost. The agency is backpedaling, and says it now will loosen the restrictions so the government can tell interested parties when they identify problems.

The explosion of staffers on Capitol Hill rages on. The Senate Rules Committee approved plans to hire more aides in committees, setting a level of $185 million on committee spending for the 109th Congress - $15 million over the levels set in the last Congress. New serfs are to be split this way: 60 percent Republicans, 40 percent Democrats.

The Capitol Police nixed the tradition of lawmakers giving out hot chocolate in their offices to constituents who come to town for inaugural festivities. New security procedures imposed for the first inauguration since 9/11 will make it impossible to get people in and out of the Capitol without lengthy security checks.



Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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