The Democrats' 100-Hour House Agenda
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The Democrats who captured the House of Representatives this week say they have an agenda for their first 100 hours in power. This week on NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, the head of the House Democratic campaign described what his party intends to do. The list came from Congressman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois.
Representative RAHM EMANUEL (Democrat, Illinois): We're going to go forward on the minimum wage increase, on direct negotiations for lower prescription drug prices, on 9/11 Commission recommendations for an up and down vote on what it takes to secure America; pay as you go rules on the budget so we don't run up the deficit, redirecting the $12 billion given to big oil companies and put it into alternative energy. And also a comprehensive reform package as it relates to lobbying and ethics reform.
INSKEEP: That's the list from Rahm Emanuel this week. Now we've called in some NPR reporters to help us dissect that list. And let's take some of the items one at a time, starting at this one.
Rep. EMANUEL: We're going to go forward on a minimum wage increase.
INSKEEP: NPR's Frank Langfitt covers labor issues. And, Frank, how big an increase are we talking about here?
FRANK LANGFITT: Well, we're talking about a two bucks and 10 cents. And it would be over a series of several steps. Right now it's about $5.15, and it's been there for a decade. The last time the federal minimum wage changed was in '97. So it would go up to about $7.25.
INSKEEP: Who says this is a bad idea?
LANGFITT: Well, economists are very critical of it and small businesses. Because they're afraid that if you raise the minimum wage you're raising labor costs. And ultimately they'll have to actually layoff low wage workers to meet the minimum wage.
INSKEEP: So the minimum wage is one item on the Democrats' agenda. Let's listen to another one.
Rep. EMANUEL: Direct negotiations for lower prescription drug prices.
INSKEEP: NPR's Julie Rovner covers health issues. And, Julie, what would those negotiations with drug provides do?
JULIE ROVNER: Well, what he's talking about is the shorthand for changing the 2003 Medicare law that prevented, when it created this Medicare drug benefit, it specifically prevented the government from directly negotiating with drug companies. It's letting the individual plans do that negotiation.
INSKEEP: This has to do with the price of prescription drugs that senior citizens can get by the millions.
ROVNER: That's right. This is not negotiating for everybody. This is negotiating for the Medicare prescription drug benefit. And this is something that the Democrats, even some Republicans. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, the very last thing he said when was leaving office is that he wished they'd had that negotiating power. This is something that I do think can pass right away.
There are a number of Republicans who support it who've been talking about this for the last year or two, that the government could probably drive a better bargain than the individual plan. I must add, however, that the congressional Budget Office doesn't agree with that. So I don't know how much it's going to actually lower the price of prescription drugs for seniors.
INSKEEP: So that's prescription drug prices. Let's move onto another item on the Democrat's wish list.
Rep. EMANUEL: The 9/11 Commission recommendations for an up and down vote on what it takes to secure America.
INSKEEP: NPR's Pam Fessler covered the 9/11 Commission, which investigated the situation after the 9/11 attacks. And, Pam, what are some things that have been recommended by that commission that haven't actually become law already?
PAM FESSLER: Well, in fact, that's a good point because a lot of the things have become law, such as increased border patrol agents, reorganizing the intelligence community. In fact, almost everything the Bush administration says that they in fact have done something on.
I think what we're really talking about is a difference in funding or degree or improving congressional oversight on whether or not the Bush administration's carrying through what they say they're doing.
During the campaign, the Democrats talked about the 9/11 Commission recommendations as though nothing had been done when in fact quite a few things have been done. There's just a difference over degree.
INSKEEP: Well, if the goal is to increase funding and emphasis, can you do that very shortly or very briefly?
FESSLER: Well, you know, obviously, Congress is going to be constrained by some of the budget realities. Also one of the more interesting recommendations of the commission that hasn't gone anywhere has been distributing homeland security funds according to risk instead of political reasons. And actually it's been Congress that has blocked that for the most part. So it'll be interesting to see whether a Democratic Congress is more willing to distribute it according to risk. And everybody has a different definition of what risk is.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Pam Fessler, and NPR's Julie Rovner is still with us. Julie, you've covered Congress for years, which is why I want to ask about one more item on that agenda: lobbying and ethics reform. When Republicans took over Congress 12 years ago, didn't they talk about cleaning up corruption in Washington?
ROVNER: They did indeed. In fact, when Republicans took over Congress 12 years ago, the Democrats were the ones who were enmeshed in a series of scandals. We had the House bank scandal and the House post office scandal. And certainly every new majority comes in with new energy and we'll see. I think if you're going to do these things, you're going to have to do them right away before they get ensconced.
INSKEEP: NPR's Julie Rovner. We were also joined by NPR's Pam Fessler and Frank Langfitt.
MONTAGNE: And that's just a sampling of issues that will be facing the new Congress. On top of everything we mentioned, there's the enormous issue of Iraq. NPR correspondents analyze more major issues at npr.org. Look for the headline What to Expect in 2007.