Congress Has More to Tackle Than Iraq This Fall

As Congress reconvenes Tuesday, all eyes will be focused on Iraq.

That obviously will require a lot of Congress’s attention during the coming weeks; however, it’s worth taking a minute to look at the rest of the story. There are quite a few other pressing matters that must be dealt with this fall. Let’s examine some of the major ones.

No Child Left Behind: This landmark piece of education legislation, passed early in President Bush’s first term, expires this year and must be reauthorized by Congress if it is to continue.

No Child Left Behind established a system of testing for elementary school students in math and reading. Required percentage passage rates increase over a period of years. Schools with a significant number of students who don’t meet these minimum standards are publicly labeled as failing to make “adequate yearly progress.”

This whole system of publicly rating schools has caused a furor among educators and parents. The crux of the problem is that students are rated by subgroups – those with minimum language proficiency, those in special education, those from economically disadvantaged homes. If a subgroup doesn’t have a sufficient percentage of students passing one of the exams, then the school is labeled as not making adequate yearly progress even if the school as a whole had a sufficient percentage of students passing an exam.

This public humiliation of a school has resulted in poor morale among teachers and administrators and resulted in some early retirements. Congress will revisit this entire system when renewing the law.

Energy Legislation: Prior to the August recess, both the House and the Senate passed different versions of energy reform legislation. The Senate increased CAFE standards (average miles per gallon) for cars and light trucks. The House had no comparable provision. There are other significant differences between the two bills.

Also, both houses have indicated that they will attempt to deal with global warming issues in separate legislation which may be combined with this first bill at a later date.

Addressing a wide range of energy issues is one of the most pressing and contentious problems facing Congress. If Congress is unable to agree on meaningful energy legislation, this could be a significant issue in the next campaign. Keep on eye on this one.

Alternative Minimum Tax: This tax reform measure, passed by Congress a number of years ago, was designed to make sure that the wealthy did not escape paying any taxes by being able to take advantage of a number of loopholes (deductions.) The difficulty is that the income cut-off amount to trigger this provision was not indexed for inflation, so that it is threatening to reach a number of middle class taxpayers. Chairman Charlie Rangel of the House Ways and Means Committee has said that fixing the AMT is one of his major priorities.

The difficulty in dealing with this issue is that any “fix” will deny the government projected tax revenue and this gap must be made up by other measures that will raise a comparable amount of taxes. No one likes to raise taxes, even to fix a real problem that exists under the code. Congress could enact a short-term fix that just delays the issue another year or pass a long-term (more expensive) solution. Keep two eyes on this one.

Election Decisions: I wrote a column a month ago detailing U.S. Senate races that would be significantly impacted around Labor Day by decisions of incumbents and serious challengers on whether or not to run in 2008. You should now add a new race to this “announcement watch” list.

This one involves the seat of Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. Hagel, a sometimes maverick who has opposed President Bush on Iraq policy, has yet to declare whether he is running for re-election. If he doesn’t run, there is broad speculation that former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey, now president of The New School in New York City, might seek a return to the Senate. If this happens, Democrats could have a real opportunity to pick up a seat that was not originally on their radar screen.

It’s not just the kids who go back to school this time of year. This is usually when the real political fun begins in earnest.

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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, Flanigan and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.