‘Do-nothing Congress’ lives up to its name


Once they were high-profile issues on Capitol Hill’s agenda. Now they are not-dones on Congress’ to-do lists, left in limbo until after the November elections, if then.

Among the most notable matters Congress punted on this week before leaving town:

  • Boosting the minimum wage.
  • Legalizing wiretapping without warrants.
  • Overhauling lobbying laws to curb corruption.
  • Increasing the security of American ports and federal courthouses.
  • Cutting Medicare payments to doctors.
  • Offshore drilling for oil.
  • Burying the estate tax.

Senators apparently also have squirmed out of yet another effort to let the public know who is pouring money into their campaigns in the crucial final months of an election season.

Unlike candidates for House seats or the White House, Senate contenders do not have to file campaign-finance reports electronically, which become easily searchable within a day or two of filing. Instead, they file reports on paper, often hundreds of pages at a time, in a process that can take three months to become public _ long after Election Day has come and gone.

As it was when the legislative year began, the measure to make candidates more accountable continues to sit, gathering dust, in the Senate’s rules and administration committee.

President Bush was apparently so eager for Congress to leave town that he praised votes lawmakers hadn’t even taken yet. Thursday night, the White House issued statements lauding legislators’ actions on passing the Defense Department appropriations bill and in confirming Mary Peters as the new transportation secretary.

Oops. About 20 minutes later came this White House statement: "The votes on DoD appropriations and Mary Peters’ nomination have not yet been taken. The statements by the president were sent in error." On Friday, both measures finally passed.

Military cooks, perhaps known best for turning mountains of ingredients into chow for masses of ravenous troops, now have a chance to strut their more refined culinary stuff.

Cable-TV cooking luminary Emeril Lagasse is hosting a "military only" cooking contest and inviting chefs in uniform to submit their original creations. Emeril will judge the entries based on creativity and taste, and feature them in a future "Emeril Live" show on Food Network, which is owned by The E.W. Scripps Company, the parent company of Scripps Howard News Service.

A couple of the much-heralded Smithsonian Institution museums are far less popular than they have been. The National Museum of the American Indian, which opened in 2004 to both acclaim and criticism, has had about 1.1 million visitors this year _ about 500,000 fewer than the year before. The National Air and Space Museum, long a favorite of tourists, drew 3.7 million through August, down 1 million from the eight-month total last year.

Smithsonian officials blame a spate of nighttime robberies and assaults on tourists along the National Mall last summer for scaring some visitors away. But other museums in the area _ the National Museum of African Art and the Sackler Asian art gallery _ bucked the trend, attracting more visitors than in 2005.

Climate scientists say the world’s icecaps are melting rapidly, but not quite so quick that they don’t need a few more polar icebreakers to get them to research stations in the Arctic and particularly the Antarctic, according to recommendations issued by the National Academies of Science.

The only two heavy U.S. icebreakers are 30 years old and so breakdown-prone that one’s virtually in mothballs already and the other’s dicey, leaving the National Science Foundation to contract with Russia to open a channel to resupply the base at McMurdo Sound in Antarctica the past two years. A Coast Guard research ship, while not so heavy, appears adequate to handle most missions around the North Pole, but has no backup.

Oh, about that melting ice: it still gets 6 to 10 feet thick over the coldest part of the Arctic every winter, for now, and in Antarctica, big icebergs melting off the shelves are actually changing water-circulation patterns so that there’s now more sea ice in places, rather than less, during the Southern Hemisphere summer.

If you’ve got a history buff on your holiday list, consider the photo CDs the government’s National Technical Information Service is now selling. For $50 each, you can get a collection of about 200 historic photographs chronicling the settling of the American West, the Civil War, blacks serving in the military during World War II or that war in general.

The images are copies of photos stored in the National Archives, and include, for instance, famous shots attributed to Civil War photographer Matthew Brady. Call 1-800-553-6847, or visit http://www.ntis.gov.

(E-mail Lisa Hoffman at hoffmanL(at)shns.com.)