When the new Congress convenes later this week, we all know about Speaker Nancy Pelosi's agenda for the first 100 hours (about three weeks of legislative days).
This includes raising the minimum wage, passing an ethics reform package and giving the federal government power to negotiate drug prices for participants in the Medicare Part D prescription drug plan.
What we don't know yet is the rest of the story: what major issues Congress will tackle during the remainder of the next two years. I have some suggestions.
No issue is tougher than reforming our nation's immigration laws. The last major immigration bill, Simpson-Mazzoli, took years of deliberation before it was finally passed in the mid-1980s. It included amnesty provisions and employer sanctions. The sanctions (fines) against employers who knowingly hired illegal aliens were never fully implemented and, therefore, we have the problems our country faces today: millions of illegal aliens within our borders.
President Bush proposed major changes in our immigration law which were embraced by a bipartisan majority in the Senate but strongly opposed by members of his own party in the House, so nothing was done during the last Congress. Now that Democrats control both chambers, it is possible to pass major immigration reform legislation, but there is significant opposition in the country to anything that sounds like it might be amnesty and politicians of both parties will remain cautious.
Congress should make another run at this contentious issue, but it won't be easy.
I wrote an entire column on this issue recently. The Medicare Part A (hospital) trust fund runs out of money in 13 years and Medicare Part B (doctors fees) and Part D (prescription drugs) will be a major drain on general tax revenues in our budget in coming years.
This is a train wreck waiting to happen, and the longer Congress delays taking action, the more draconian the action will need to be. Congress has chosen to ignore this impending crisis for years, but sooner or later it must act.
Why not act now rather than waiting until the last minute when the choices will be even harder?
It is highly unlikely that we will ever be totally energy independent and not require some foreign oil; however, the more we become dependent on foreign sources (now accounting for more than 50 percent of our energy needs), the more our foreign policy will be driven by the need for energy. How many more wars do we need to fight in the Middle East to protect our energy supplies?
We can, however, reduce our dependence on foreign oil by taking steps on a variety of fronts: increased domestic exploration, more conservation and greater emphasis on alternative energy sources. Any successful policy must combine action in all these areas.
Congress has great difficulty imposing greater fuel efficiency standards on our domestic automobile industry because of the possible impact on jobs in the United States, but it must face this issue eventually. Additionally, the federal government must make very significant investments in alternative energy sources.
This will stretch our budget but we have to find the money to make us more self-sufficient. It will wind up costing tax payers less in the long run.
We are the richest, greatest country on the face of the earth, and yet more than 40 million of our citizens do not have health insurance. This is a disgrace. We have been reluctant to move to a single payer government-run health care system because of the limitations such a system places on choice of doctors, but we need to figure out how to cover the uninsured.
By not solving this problem, we put great pressure on our hospital system, which winds up having to absorb the costs of treating the uninsured. This cost is ultimately passed on to taxpayers at the local level. Some hospitals have been forced to close as a result of the financial squeeze and others have recouped some of the lost revenue by raising rates for everyone else.
No Child Left Behind Reauthorization.
This landmark legislation comes up for renewal this year. Many congressmen and senators simply voted for a slogan rather than taking the time to understand the implications of this legislation when it first passed during the early days of the Bush administration. The legislation is very unpopular among many parents and professional educators who feel that it sets unrealistic standards, which are having the effect of driving good teachers out of the system.
Congress needs to take its time and figure out how to make this legislation work in a way that is not counterproductive. Also, Congress needs to make sure that whatever education legislation is passed is adequately funded. The president did not seek full funding for NCLB and the Republican-led Congress did not add the funds necessary to fully implement the legislation.
All of these subjects involve big issues, not little ones. The effectiveness of the new Congress ultimately will be judged on how it attacks the major issues facing the country. Congress needs to be bold in attacking the type issues I have outlined above. That doesn't mean that Congress will be successful in passing legislation dealing with each of the problems, but at least it should try.
A failure to even try will condemn the new Congress to mediocrity. Now is not a time to be timid.
Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Welte and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.