Big Bills Escape Notice in One-Story Washington

While all of Washington and its news media are focused on the Senate and the new Supreme Court nominee, important legislation is flying just below the radar. Most people are not watching the energy bill, the highway bill or the renewal of the Patriot Act. But the White House is watching, as are flocks of lobbyists, and here's why Americans everywhere should as well.

The massive energy bill has passed the House and Senate in different forms and is now subject to negotiations between the two chambers. The end result is expected to funnel $1 billion a year of taxpayer money into companies that produce oil, natural gas, electricity and other forms of energy. If you count the annual tax breaks and other incentives for these companies — money that the Treasury won't see in the form of future tax revenue — it's about $2 billion a year.

Congressional Republicans say this is a small price to pay to spark new oil drilling in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, to increase refinery capacity around the country, to provide incentives for decreased fuel consumption and to encourage research and development of renewable fuel technologies. They say by increasing oil supply and decreasing demand, the bill will help bring down the price of gasoline sometime in the future.

But environmental groups and some Democrats say the bill amounts to little more than a giveaway to big oil and natural gas companies — many of which donate generously to key congressional Republicans.

One sticking point in the energy bill that has prevented passage in the past is a conflict between chemical manufacturers and advocates of clean drinking war. A chemical fuel additive called MTBE, which makes gasoline burn more cleanly, has been leaking out of underground storage tanks. It has contaminated water supplies all over the country, most critically in the Northeast.

Some members of Congress, notably House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Republican of Texas, insist the companies that made MTBE in the past should not be liable for the cost of cleaning up these leaks. DeLay and others argue that it was Congress that mandated that fuel additives like MTBE be used in the first place.

A deal is emerging this week that will create a large MTBE cleanup fund, similar to the so-called "superfund" used to decontaminate toxic waste sites in recent decades. MTBE makers will pay into the fund, and local municipalities can use the money to clean local water supplies. But the final details of the deal may determine the fate of the bill, when the House-Senate product goes back to each chamber for final approval.

Another piece of critical legislation now in negotiations between House and Senate leaders is the federal highway bill. Many in Congress call this a jobs bill because it is expected to spur new construction and repair of roads. But though everyone wants a bill to pass, the details are sticky enough that lawmakers have been wrangling over it for two years.

Most important to many is a single number: the ratio between how much a state pays in federal gasoline taxes and the how much it gets back in road construction subsidies. So-called "donor states" are fed up with paying more to the government than they get back.

Earlier this year, key senators struck a deal that appeased all parties to the deal but at a cost much higher than President Bush had outlined in his budget. Lawmakers continue to work on this problem, and Mr. Bush may end up accepting a slightly more costly bill than he wanted, in order to get the legislation passed at all.

And finally, Congress is nearing renewal of the controversial Patriot Act, the measure passed in the weeks following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that expands federal law enforcement powers with the aim of combating terrorism. Because lawmakers knew they were acting in haste and effecting an enormous change in federal law, they set the Patriot Act to expire at the end of 2005.

With that date fast approaching, Mr. Bush and many in Congress argue that most of those powers should be make permanent. House Republicans also want to extend for another decade the most controversial of the Patriot Act powers, those that allow for roving wiretaps and for searches of library and bookstore records. Many Democrats, civil liberties groups, and some conservatives argued that these provisions allow unchecked government intrusion in citizens' lives.

If the Senate confirms John Roberts for the Supreme Court, he will begin the new term with the other justices in October. But most of these other issues may be resolved much sooner, and their impact on the everyday lives of Americans may be much more visible in the months and years to come.

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