Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was sworn in as Speaker of the United States House of Representatives on Jan. 4. It marked the return to power of the Democrats in both houses of Congress, and the first time that a woman has led either body.
The Democrats wasted no time in beginning to enact a series of ethical and administrative reforms in the House. But in rushing to meet their 100 hour timetable, they have largely frozen out Republicans. This drive for efficiency crowded out the competing pledge for a more open and bipartisan process.
Among the provisions passed are rules requiring that legislative sponsors of 'earmarks,' money inserted into a measure for a particular purpose or organization, be identified. That process has mushroomed to $64 billion annually.
Whether earmarks are good or bad often depends on who benefits. For example, Pelosi has used the process to direct millions of dollars to AIDS activities in San Francisco.
Another measure that zipped through was 'pay as you go,' which requires making cutes in existing funding or finding new revenue for proposed increased spending. However, there are provisions to waive that provision. This may affect needed increases for HIV/AIDS programs.
The Senate has been slower and less flashy in taking up reforms. That is a product of both the Democrats slim one vote margin of control, and perhaps more importantly the traditions and rules of the Senate where 60 votes are needed to stop a filibuster.
THE GAY AGENDA
Expectations are high within the LGBT community for moving pro-gay legislation during this session of Congress. There is some talk of possibly reviving an amendment to basic federal civil rights legislation to include sexual orientation. And Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., is floating the idea of a possible national civil unions bill.
Human Rights Campaign spokesman Brad Luna says their priorities remain early passage of hate crimes legislation and moving the Employment Non-Discrimination Act ( ENDA ) forward. Hearings and even votes have prepared the ground for these bills, while other measures would require substantial discussion with allies on specific language, and building broad political support.
Chicago political consultant Michael Bauer would make ENDA a priority. He speaks from experience when he says, 'Getting fired from a job for being gay is a life-changing experience…one friend actually hung himself.'
He also sees repeal of the antigay military policy known as 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' as among the top priorities. Repeal recently got a boost from retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Shalikashvili.
Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., introduced a repeal bill last year in the House, but hearings have not yet been held and there is no companion measure in the Senate. So it is unrealistic to expect a vote soon.
'We in the community have to be able to manage our expectations and not expect that our issues will be coming to a vote in the next three to six months,' says Bauer.
He sees the best window for passage of pro-gay legislation as after the summer recess and before the presidential campaign hits full speed in early 2008.
'Everyone has high hopes for the Democratic Congress,' says Carl Schmid, who lobbies on HIV issues for The AIDS Institute. 'I think we have to put things into perspective—money is going to be tight. There is going to be a lot of competition just within the health community.'
He says the 'pay as you go' provision will make it more difficult to get needed increases for AIDS programs. 'It is going to take hard work.'
The immediate battle is over the appropriations continuing resolution for the current fiscal year. Part of the glue that held together reauthorization of the Ryan White CARE Act was in increase in $70 million in Title II funding. That money now needs to be found and put into the continuing resolution, or the entire compromise may fall apart.
Schmid sees Congress holding oversight hearings on all AIDS medical services, prevention programs, and abstinence only programs. There also is some talk about possible prevention legislation 'to force our government to do a little more' in terms of setting prevention goals and targeting spending to the communities most affected by the epidemic.
Bauer says, 'We have a whole slew of issues and not everything is going to get through. If we accomplish two or three things, we're doing great.'