The Democrats Race the Clock

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Philadelphia Inquirer / MCT / Landov

House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi stands with Lee Hamilton, co-chairman of the 9/11 Commision, left, and Bennie Thompson (D-MS), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, at a news conference in Washington, D.C., January 8, 2007.

Any closer look at Nancy Pelosi's first 100 hours plan has to start with the obvious: it's not really 100 hours. Only in the U.S. Congress, where debate means one member talks to a chamber of empty chairs, could 100 hours last two weeks — as time stands still so members can take a day off to see the college football championship game. Even the internal meetings both parties are having don't count against the constantly on-pause stopwatch Steny Hoyer, Pelosi's No. 2, has on his website.

To even start trying to pass all these bills in the first days of Congress's new session, Democrats had to violate a campaign pledge: Republicans didn't get to offer amendments or have hearings on the first six bills in the House, something Pelosi had promised during the campaign would happen. But the real problem with "100 hours" pledge is that it was designed with two major, potentially conflicting goals in mind: winning the election and building momentum right at the start when the Democrats took over Congress.

Measures like reducing interest rates on student loans and raising the minimum wage were the perfect proposals for a campaign, tailor-made for Democrats to use in attack ads against their opponents. And because the proposals were relatively uncontroversial, the famously divided party could get everyone on board. Now, though, with the Democrats actually in power and pushing these bills through the House, it's a very different story. As the party puts the fine print on the legislative proposals, it's clear that many will never actually become laws — and aren't necessarily the best approaches to solving the difficulties they're supposed to address.

A proposal to reduce the interest rates on student loans from 6.8% to 3.4%, for example, will certainly help reduce debt for students. But many education experts say a smarter way to help students who can't afford to pay for college would be a massive increase in funding for the federal Pell Grant program, which gives scholarships of up to $4,000, and is targeted for students whose families make less than $40,000 each year. Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid, a website about student financial aid, estimated that a student who took out $20,000 in debt for college would see his student loan bills reduced by $40 each month under the new proposal — a relatively small benefit, given the billions it would cost the federal government. "It's still an extremely expensive proposal with very little public policy benefit," he said.

Another of the Democrats' proposals would allow the federal government to negotiate prices for medications under the Medicare prescription drug law. Yet the Congressional Budget Office released a report this week that said Medicare would have little luck getting drug prices reduced. Private plans and the Veterans Administration get discounts from drugmakers in part because they will offer a specific drug but not its competitor. Medicare is not allowed to do that. "The provision probably won't do a lot," said Daniel Mendelson, who was a health care advisor in the Clinton White House.

The 100 hours plan also faces two other major stumbling blocks: the Senate and President Bush. The Senate will take probably take upwards of 100 days, not hours, to consider the legislation the House is passing so swiftly. A congressional ethics bill passed in two days in the House, for example, will spend more than a week in debate in the Senate. And President Bush, who has already vetoed a bill on expandng funding for embryonic stem cell research, will almost certainly do the same for the stem-cell bill Democrats passed on Thursday.

The Democratic proposal most likely to win approval from both the Senate and President Bush is the bill to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25, which the House passed this week. And the ethics bill — which establishes tougher rules on lobbying and pork-barrel projects — is also likely to become law. But on the rest of its 100-hour plan, the House may be racing against the clock for nothing. If you call that rushing.