Here’s a question: When House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi talks about what Democrats plan to accomplish in the first 100 hours when Congress convenes in January, does she mean 100 consecutive hours, as in, say, from a Monday at 10 a.m. until Friday at 2 p.m., or does she mean something else?
The answer is something else. Pelosi plans to enact the Democrats’ “Six for ’06” agenda in 100 legislative hours — not real hours. And a legislative hour is not just any hour that the House is open for business. “It’s when the House convenes, after the one-minutes and before the special orders,” says Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly, referring to the times of day when members of Congress will sometimes drone on about any issue that comes to mind. At that pace, Daly says, the first 100 hours “could take a couple of weeks.”
Or maybe longer. “We don’t really have a term ‘legislative hours,’” says a top Republican House aide. Depending how that is defined, “it could last for several weeks.”
There’s been confusion about the 100 hours for quite a while. Pelosi first started talking about the idea during the summer, and she made no distinction between hours and legislative hours. By early October, she was still talking about 100 hours when she gave an interview to the Associated Press, which reported Pelosi’s plan this way:
Day One: Put new rules in place to “break the link between lobbyists and legislation.”
Day Two: Enact all the recommendations made by the commission that investigated the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Time remaining until 100 hours: Raise the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour, maybe in one step. Cut the interest rate on student loans in half. Allow the government to negotiate directly with the pharmaceutical companies for lower drug prices for Medicare patients. Broaden the types of stem cell research allowed with federal funds.
While the Democratic agenda has been characterized by some critics as unambitious, the goal of getting it accomplished in 100 hours has certainly not — if anything, it has been described as unrealistic. So talk of 100 hours became talk of 100 legislative hours. According to a search of the Nexis database, Pelosi’s first reported use of the phrase “100 legislative hours” was on October 27, when she wrote, in a letter to USA Today, that “in our first 100 legislative hours in office, we have a bipartisan and achievable plan” to enact the new agenda. But the distinction did not catch on. In fact, the phrase “100 legislative hours” has never appeared in the Washington Post or the New York Times.
Confusion has persisted even after the election. On November 10, three days after Democrats won control of the House, the Brookings Institution held a news conference which discussed the party’s agenda. Brookings scholar Thomas Mann, an authority on Congress said, “I’m still puzzled why Nancy Pelosi came up with this 100 hour agenda. I mean, 100 days is bad enough. But 100 hours? How do you move decisively on six major items at 100 hours without setting aside regular order and not allowing any amendments or debates?”
Ron Haskins, another Brookings scholar (and former Republican Hill staffer), agreed. “I actually have some good friends on Pelosi’s staff, and I’m praying for them, because they’re not going to survive the 100 hours,” Haskins said. “I mean, I don’t know why she did that. It just does not make sense to me.”
Meanwhile, there have been, in the last week, a number of indications that Pelosi might not be able to fulfill some of the key promises she made in the campaign, no matter how long she has. The “Six for ’06” agenda, according to a release from Pelosi’s office, is this:
** Draining the swamp — break the link between lobbyists and legislation and commit to pay-as-you-go budgeting, no new deficit spending
** Making America more secure — implement the independent 9/11 Commission recommendations
** Giving Americans a raise — increase the minimum wage
** Making college more affordable — cut the interest rate in half on federally subsidized student loans
** Making health care more affordable — negotiate for lower prescription drug prices
** Ending subsidies for Big Oil
** Giving hope to families with devastating diseases — allow stem cell research
Problems might arise with several of those initiatives. Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that Democrats will not implement one major recommendation of the September 11 Commission — the one calling for an overhaul of how Congress oversees the intelligence community. It’s also possible that Democrats might not carry through with some other 9/11 Commission recommendations, at least not in the promised time frame. If that happens, look for party leaders to come up with a plan to allow more time to consider the issue. “For the things that they can’t do, they’ll create an internal commission to study the other recommendations,” says a GOP source. “It will be a commission to study a commission.”
Democrats are also said to be struggling with proposals to cut the interest rates on college loans. “It can be very expensive,” says the GOP source. “You have a cost component that is pretty complicated.” To avoid the problem, it’s possible Democrats might initially come up with a one-year plan to cut interest rates, in hopes of finding a permanent solution later. But in any case, it’s likely their actions will run afoul of Pelosi’s high-priority commitment to restore “pay-go” rules — the policy that any new spending or tax cuts must be offset by similar cuts in spending.
Then there is the pledge to have the federal government negotiate prescription drug prices. Since the election, there have been a number of news stories suggesting that the Medicare prescription drug benefit, a frequent target of Democratic campaign attacks, actually works pretty well, is fairly popular with seniors, and might not be improved by the promised change. “As Democrats prepare to take control of Congress,” the Washington Post reported on November 26, “they are struggling to keep that promise without wrecking a program that has proven cheaper and more popular than anyone imagined.”
Now, there is speculation that Democrats might attempt some sort of halfway measure, like simply removing a provision in the Medicare prescription drug law that forbids the government from negotiating prices. Yet doing that would not force the executive branch to begin negotiating, and it is unlikely the Bush administration would make any changes in response. On the other hand, Democrats might pass a bill requiring the government to negotiate, but that might take more time than Pelosi has allowed and open up a fractious debate within the party. “The problem is, you begin to run into disagreements between Democrats,” the GOP aide notes. “Would it actually result in lower prices?”
Finally, there is the issue of spending. A few days ago, the New York Times published a front-page story headlined, “In New Congress, Pork May Linger.” “Like their Republican counterparts, many Democratic appropriators consider earmarks a venerable tradition,” the paper reported, describing the narrowly-directed spending that Pelosi and others had criticized during the campaign. “Many of the new Democratic chairmen are among the most experienced purveyors of political bacon.” The Times reported that a number of powerful Democrats are determined to ensure that there will be no significant changes in the earmark system — in the first 100 legislative hours, or ever. Whether Pelosi will be able to defeat them in her effort to “drain the swamp” is not clear.
There are certainly things Democrats will be able to accomplish upon taking power — for example, most observers believe they will succeed in increasing the federal minimum wage. But, for now at least, it appears that the story of the first 100 hours — legislative or otherwise — might become a tale of contentiousness, frustration, and half-measures as the new Speaker of the House confronts the realities of governing.
— Byron York, NR’s White House correspondent, is the author of the book The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President — and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time.