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Senators Remembered to Deliver for Folks at Home

Aside from the hot national issues of the day, lawmakers cleared some local concerns, like weed control and a shooting range.

November 22, 2002|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Sure, they made headlines by approving President Bush's Department of Homeland Security.

But before senators brought down the curtain on the 107th Congress, they also enacted the Noxious Weed Control Act of 2002. They voted to establish institutes to study wildfire prevention in the West. And they approved a measure turning over 2,880 acres of federal land for a public shooting range on the outskirts of Las Vegas.

While other issues drew more public attention, it was the more mundane topics -- those important to the folks back home and to politicians' self-preservation -- that occupied the final hours of the 2002 legislative session.

"All politics really is local," said Don Kettl, a University of Wisconsin political scientist, recalling a political adage most memorably articulated by the late House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.).

Lawmakers need to deliver for their constituents.

"Few members can credibly go back to their constituents and say, 'I created the new homeland security agency,' " said Philip A. Klinkner, an associate professor of government at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. "On the other hand, they can go back and plausibly claim, 'This new shooting range is because of my skill and leadership on Capitol Hill.' "

Don Ritchie, the Senate's associate historian, recalled that past chairmen of the Foreign Relations Committee "always seemed vulnerable when they ran for reelection because the voters cared less about what they did for the world than what they did back home."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was so determined to win passage of a water bill that she threw out her original 22-page measure and drafted a mere two paragraphs that were designed to overcome Republican opposition.

She succeeded, sort of. The measure, which would renew the California Federal Bay-Delta Program to restore the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the state's major watershed, passed the Senate, but probably too late for the House to take up the measure.

This bill, like a lot of measures that cleared the Senate in the final hours, gave its sponsor little more than bragging rights, though Feinstein called the water bill a "modest step forward" that will "generate momentum for further action next year."

In the early morning hours Wednesday, the Senate passed more than 100 bills, about 40 of which already had cleared the House and now go to the president for his signature.

They included the shooting range bill, necessary to eliminate the danger of makeshift target practice areas popping up near homes and communities, said a spokesman for one of the bill's sponsors, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.). To ensure the bill's passage, Reid stayed in the Senate chamber after most of his colleagues had gone to bed.

Also sent to the president was a bill to establish a commission to study reparations for the people of Guam who suffered under the Japanese occupation of the U.S. territory during World War II. The panel would make recommendations to Congress, which would decide how much money should be paid out, if any.

"This legislation is enormously significant for the people of Guam," said Robert A. Underwood, Guam's delegate to Congress. "As the only American community to experience an enemy occupation in the 20th century, there has not been adequate recognition of this experience and no serious attempt to provide for compensation."

There were even bills that dealt with matters far outside their sponsors' districts. Among those was one authorizing up to $50 million to protect Civil War battlefields. Rep. Gary G. Miller (R-Diamond Bar) introduced the measure after visiting the site of the Battle of Memphis, in Tennessee. "All I saw was a historic plaque and condominiums," he said.

A number of other Senate-passed bills need the approval of the House, making it unlikely that they will win final approval this year. Among those were bills creating wildfire research institutes and establishing a more coordinated program to eradicate weeds.

The House today is expected to meet -- with just a few members present in a session lasting just a few minutes -- to approve noncontroversial Senate changes in the homeland security legislation before closing the 107th Congress.

For those bills that fail to clear Congress this year, sponsors will need to reintroduce the bills when the new Congress convenes Jan. 7.

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