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The Do-Nothingest Congress

Nearly sixty years ago President Harry S. Truman infamously derided the 1947-1948 Congress as the "Do-Nothing Congress" for meeting for only 108 days. Well, Harry must be rolling in his grave, because the current U.S. House of Representatives (now on their annual August break) is projected to spend a mere 79 days in session in 2006.

This is largely due to their extended "district work periods" in which they go home and meet with constituents, campaign and fit in a few rounds of golf. While most Americans returned from their holiday vacation in the first week of January, the House took nearly the entire month off, commencing the session on January 31st. In February, the House met for only 47 hours, an average work week for many Americans. While the year still has over 4 months to go, the calendar leaves a maximum of only 16 additional days for the House to complete its business. Meanwhile, the Senate is also projected to have a light workload this year, devoting only 125 days to legislative business, a 34-day drop from 2005.

As part of Congresspedia's continuing development of articles on how Congress works, we've looked back at the last dozen years of congressional calendars, which are set by the Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader. You can see the results at our new article on congressional calendars, which includes this interesting chart:

Drug Company's Hearing Too Sensitive For Criticism

Tebonin Pharmacy PromotionOne of the marketing success stories in the world of herbal pills is the hype and advertising that has made Tebonin one of the big-time sellers. If you believe the ads, popping a Tebonin pill a day will relieve tinnitus (the ringing sound some people have in their ears), dizziness and even improve mental alertness. The promoters claim the drug, which is based on a patented extract from the ginkgo biloba tree, improves "impaired micro-circulation," reduces "free radicals" and "promotes optimum cell function."

According to the German manufacturer, Dr. Willmar Schwabe GmbH & Co KG, eight million pills are consumed every day. Schwabe, like so many companies in the herbal supplements sector, trades on its feel-good image. "From Nature, For Health," its website claims. That's the story the company wants you to hear. However, when a small group of Australian doctors and pharmacists, AusPharm Consumer Health Watch, drafted a report raising doubts about the benefits of Tebonin, they discovered a company that was not so warm and fuzzy. Soon after sending a copy of their draft report to the company, they were hit with a writ seeking an injunction that may bury their critical assessment forever.

Harnessing the web to expose earmarks

Earmarks are the lifeblood of Washington, providing an avenue for Congress to bypass the executive branch and designate specific blocks of money to go to specific programs or contractors. They are also, as Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) calls them, the "currency of corruption." Earmarks given to defense contractors in exchange for bribes were what brought down now-former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) and are creating a mess of trouble for Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.) and several other members of Congress.

Beyond corruption, earmarks often take the form of "pork," the taxpayer-funded largess that members of Congress snag to show their constituents how effective they are at bringing home the bacon (a major plank in the primary platform of Sen. Joe Lieberman).

In short, earmarks often aggravate a lot of people of varied political bents, from deficit hawks to citizen muckrakers. However, finding out where the earmarks are actually going has been a historically difficult task—until now.

The Sunlight Foundation, which co-operates Congresspedia with the Center for Media and Democracy, has just developed a group of fancy tools that slice and dice the 2007 appropriations bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education to show you who exactly is getting the 1,800 earmarks in that bill. They are enlisting citizen journalists to help them expose the outrageous and the scurrilous in the bill.

Congress vs. The President

About two weeks ago, on July 26, 2006, the American Bar Association issued a report condemning President Bush's use of "signing statements." These statements are essentially a "P.S." written underneath his signature on a piece of legislation that states how he interprets and intends to enforce the law. (This is part of the Unitary Executive Theory.)

The ABA is not happy about this. From the press release for the report:

"Presidential signing statements that assert President Bush’s authority to disregard or decline to enforce laws adopted by Congress undermine the rule of law and our constitutional system of separation of powers... To address these concerns, the task force urges Congress to adopt legislation enabling its members to seek court review of signing statements that assert the President’s right to ignore or not enforce laws passed by Congress, and urges the President to veto bills he feels are not constitutional."

The ABA asked and it shall receive: two days later Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) filed a bill that would allow the House or Senate to file a lawsuit to have the Supreme Court rule on the constitutionality of signing statements.

Here's where Congresspedia comes in. I called Sen. Specter's office and confirmed that while the bill has been referred to Specter's Senate Judiciary Committee, there has yet to be a hearing and no other Senators have signed up to be cosponsors. So, where do members of the Senate stand on Specter's bill? Citizen journalists, help us find out.

How to Be a Grassroots Propaganda Buster

While in the Denver area for a conference, Center for Media and Democracy Associate Director Judith Siers-Poisson and I met with staff and board members of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center (RMPJC). We wanted to hear about RMPJC's fine work, especially on nuclear weapons issues, and to describe CMD's online resources to them. One offshoot of that meeting was the following article, which I wrote for RMPJC's newsletter.