Columns » Bob McCord

Where is the Congress?

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After first trying to stop a Congressional investigation of Sept. 11 and only yawning at the report when the commission chairman handed him its 567-page report, President Bush is now calling the Congress to come back and pass most of what the commission proposes to protect Americans from terrorists. The president's aides whispered to him that doing something, anything, that looked like protection would get him votes. Hearing all of this, the average person would want to know, just where is the Congress? Aren't the senators and representatives at work in Washington receiving more than $150,000 a year along with big pensions and other benefits taxpayers give them? Well, the members of the House and Senate are on a six-week vacation (they call it a "recess"), one of a half-dozen they have given themselves during this session. Many are relaxing at vacation spots, and those who are running for re-election are, of course, campaigning. The Democrats went to Boston for their convention, and the Republicans will soon be conventioneers in New York City. When you ask why the Congress is working less than it used to, their aides will say that it's not true. They point out that in past years members of Congress were considered to be part-time employees of the government, and they had to go home frequently to see about their full-time businesses. Of course that was before the airplane was invented. Anyway, what's important is that this Congress hasn't done much. For example, the appropriations for most government agencies have not been voted on. The only recent piece of good work by the Congress is that it refused to try to amend the Constitution to forbid the marriage of people of the same sex. However, with Bush's support, the House, with the aid of all Arkansas congressmen except Vic Snyder, passed the Marriage Protection Act, an unconstitutional attempt to keep federal courts from overriding state laws on same-sex marriages. What really bothers me is that the Congress has refused to renew the 10-year-old ban of the sale of 19 assault-style semiautomatic weapons such as AK-47s and Uzis - the kind of weapons that gangs in Little Rock once used to hold up liquor stores. The law, which the gun manufacturers, dealers and the members of the National Rifle Association despise, will expire on Sept. 14 if Congress doesn't renew it. Polls show that 66 percent of the gun owners do not want people having these deadly weapons. The two men most responsible for passing the law 10 years ago were former President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush, father of the present President Bush. But young Bush wants every gun-lover's vote. Republicans like House Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania have blocked the law's renewal. Santorum told National Public Radio that assault weapons had no effect on crime. However, I bet he never said it to Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., whose husband was killed and her son badly wounded by one of those assault rifles fired on a commuter train. Then there's the federal minimum wage, which is $5.15 an hour and hasn't been raised since 1997. Since the minimum wage law was passed in 1938, only one other minimum wage has remained as long as $5.15. Think about how much more you have to pay now for what you paid for the same thing seven years ago, and you will see that young and poor workers are hurting today. Many members of Congress think the minimum should be raised, but the Republican leaders are opposed to a raise. Their argument is that an increase would hurt small businesses. But studies show that there are nearly as many big businesses paying the minimum wage. Research by an organization of CEOs in New York shows that if government raises the minimum wage, businesses would lose less money than they do now because their better employees would stay, eliminating the cost of recruiting and training new workers. ***** The experts are saying that right now the race between George Bush and John Kerry is too close to call. That makes me wonder if that's the case in Arkansas, so I took a poll. I asked 30 people in Little Rock and North Little Rock who they thought would be elected president, not who they wanted to win. The people I asked - Democrats, Republicans, men, women, black and white -- are people who are interested in public affairs, read newspapers, watch TV news and always vote. Eight said Kerry, 14 said Bush and eight said it was too early to say, several adding that they thought the oncoming debates could make a difference. While this little poll was hardly professional, its results told me that the Kerry campaign leaders were probably wise to stop advertising in Arkansas for its puny six electoral votes and go on to bigger and more friendly states in the South. After all, four years ago 51 percent of Arkansans voted for Bush, 46 percent for Democrat Al Gore. Forty-three of the 75 counties went for Bush as did six of the largest 10 cities. Only 15.7 percent of black people live in Arkansas, and it was only the counties where most of them live that went for Gore. Arkansas was once the Southern state that the Democrats could always count on, but that began to change in 1968 when the state voted for George Wallace, the leader of the segregationist American Independent Party who ran for President.

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