Unfinished Business on the Hill

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The House is hours away from recessing for the summer and the Senate will follow next week. When they both reconvene in September, there’s plenty of unfinished business to tackle.

How to productively address legislative opportunities seems only a matter of setting priorities, but election year antics could get in the way of advancing solutions important to small business.

The House has racked up a significant volume of small business-friendly legislation, which has hit the wall over in the Senate. From taxes to energy, health care and more, many bills have garnered wide bipartisan support.

Here’s a partial list of legislative opportunities for the Senate:

Death Tax Relief: After fully repealing the death tax on multiple occasions, the House recently took up what Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., referred to as a “doable” approach on the issue.

The Permanent Estate Tax Relief Act, H.R. 5638 passed the House 269-156 in June. The legislation gives a $5-million-per-person/$10-million-per-couple death tax exemption, and lowers the tax rate to 15 percent (on estates valued at $25 million or below), and 30 percent (for those above $25 million), today’s current rate is 46 percent, with a $2 million exemption. The exemption is indexed for inflation.

An attempt to put H.R. 5638 on pension legislation this week was aborted after protests from a handful of Republicans. Instead, death tax relief could be tied together with a package of tax extenders (expiring measures that need renewal) and new provisions that will be addressed in September. Political challenges will emerge with this approach as business interests are already jockeying for their specific provisions. After all, the “tax cut pie” is only so big. Also, Senate number crunchers will look to increase other taxes to “offset” extensions or new cuts. (See my previous FOXNEWS.com column on this issue.)

Small Business Health Plans: Legislation that would enable small firms to group together and leverage their numbers to negotiate for more choice and affordability in health coverage has passed the House eight times. The most recent version — H.R. 525, the Small Business Health Fairness Act — passed the House in July 2005 by a vote of 263-165.

In the Senate, a conceptually similar measure, the Health Insurance Marketplace Modernization and Affordability Act, S.1955, got 55 votes but not the 60 needed to proceed under Senate rules. Supporters vow they will be back to take another run at the legislation.

Eminent Domain Abuse: The infamous U.S. Supreme Court Kelo decision elicited a decisive response from the House. Mortified by its implications (which gutted the precept of “public use” as it relates to the taking of homes and small businesses — like trendy economic development projects), the House passed the Private Property Rights Protection Act, H.R. 4128, in November 2005. The vote for the Act was a whopping 376-38.

H.R. 4128 denies federal economic funding to states and localities that abuse their power of eminent domain by using economic development as a a rationale for land and property grabs. Several bills have been introduced by Democrat and Republican senators, but as of yet there is little movement on the issue.

Interest on Business Checking: In May of 2005, the House acted upon an archaic
ban that prohibits banks from paying interest on business checking accounts. The Business Checking Freedom Act of 2005, H.R. 1224, lifts the prohibition. The bill passed by a vote of 424-1. The legislation has advanced multiple times in the House, but the Senate has not budged.

Legal Reform: Though the Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act (LARA), H.R. 420, passed on a more “partisan basis” in October of 2005 (228-184), the fact that frivolous lawsuits are burdening small business and the economy is acknowledged by both parties. LARA lays out fair ground rules for litigation, including measures to reduce jury shopping, and sanctions against those who bring frivolous actions. It has been referred to the Senate.

Meanwhile the “cheeseburger bill” got a super-sized House reception the same month. The Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act, H.R. 554, passed 306-120. The bill prevents lawsuits brought by plaintiffs that blame food manufactures, wholesalers, and retailers for obesity and related problems. Companion legislation, S. 908, has been introduced in the Senate.
Streamlining Food Labeling Regulations: Small firms dominate industries within food manufacturing. They represent over 90 percent of manufacturers in commercial bakeries, seafood canning, dairy products, coffee, tea and other food categories. In response to the costly, inconsistent and complex state-by-state system that currently exists, the National Uniformity for Food Act (H.R. 4167) would establish a national set of food safety and warning requirements for packaged foods. In March of this year the bill passed the House, 283-139. Similar legislation, S. 3128, was recently introduced in the Senate.

Energy Development and Self-Sufficiency: The Deep Ocean Energy Resources (DOER) Act, H.R. 4761, addresses the need for greater domestic energy exploration by lifting the blanket ban on offshore drilling. States would have the authority to develop off-shore, and the flexibility to ban such production within 100 miles of their shoreline. The bill passed the House 232-187, with a bloc of coastal state Republicans voting against the measure. The Senate is working on its own version.

OSHA Improvement: A package of four bills passed the House in July 2005 that aim to improve workplace safety by reforming OSHA enforcement tactics against small businesses, and establishing better safety compliance by improving working relationships between OSHA and the small business community. The bills would: give small firms more time to respond to OSHA charges (H.R. 739, passed 256-164), the right to a speedy trial (H.R. 740, passed 234-185), right of appeal to an independent court (H.R. 741, passed 226-197), and end the OSHA intimidation that occurs through frivolous charges (H.R. 742, passed 235-187). The Senate has not moved on similar legislation.

The Senate continues to live up to its reputation as the graveyard for legislation. Its deliberative character was designed to balance the passions of the House. However, well-thought out legislation addressing current needs has been sitting idle – often for years. In a rapidly changing world economy, critics argue that inaction is not a satisfactory response if the U.S. wishes to stay economically strong and competitive. Small businesses are likely to agree.

Karen Kerrigan is president & CEO of the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council, a research and advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. that works to protect small business and promote entrepreneurship. She is also founder of Women Entrepreneurs, Inc., an association helping women business owners succeed through education, networking and advocacy. Kerrigan can be reached at kkerrigan@sbecouncil.org.

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