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As election day nears, Congress gets busy — with pet causes

September 18, 2012|By Richard Simon
  • The U.S. Capitol building n Washington. Reelection-minded lawmakers are scrambling to bring their pet causes up for votes before hitting the campaign trail.
The U.S. Capitol building n Washington. Reelection-minded lawmakers… (Pablo Martinez Monsivais…)

WASHINGTON -- The end is near.

That is, the final days of the congressional session before the election. Reelection-minded lawmakers are scrambling to bring their pet causes up for votes before hitting the campaign trail. Among those causes: creating a check-off box on tax returns for voluntary contributions to pay down the national debt and recognizing the sites that developed the atomic bomb.

Congress may have been labeled a do-nothing institution, racked by bitter partisanship, but it's nonetheless managed to pass legislation — even if that legislation has dealt with matters less consequential than the looming "fiscal cliff."

Last week, the House approved bills with popular names such as the No-Hassle Flying Act, aimed at streamlining baggage screening, and the Government Spending Accountability Act, to establish spending limits and new reporting requirements for government conferences. The latter was a response to the General Services Administration’s $823,000 Las Vegas-area conference that featured a mind reader.

Bills to designate sites at Los Alamos, N.M., Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Hanford, Wash., as the Manhattan Project National Historical Park and to allow Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts to keep space souvenirs from their missions are expected to win House approval this week.

"When I read in the papers and hear in the press that Republicans and Democrats can't get together on anything, well, we're together on something today," Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) said last week in support of the North Texas Zebra Mussel Barrier Act.

Some bills are designed to give lawmakers something to boast about on the campaign trail. 

Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), citing the importance of the grape industry to his district, is expected to win House approval of his Grape Region Accelerated Production and Efficiency — yes, the GRAPE — Act, to relax rules on truck drivers hauling grapes during harvest period. 

For some lawmakers, it could be their last shot at getting their legislation across the finish line. 

Some measures are aimed at highlighting differences between the parties, such as the proposed "Stop the War on Coal Act," which has no chance of passing but is intended as a Republican jab at President Obama’s energy policies.

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) will get a vote, at least in the Republican-controlled House, on his bill, the Buffett Rule Act, a dig at the president’s call for raising income tax rates for couples earning more than $250,000 a year. The president has cited billionaire investor Warren E. Buffett’s complaint that he pays a lower tax rate than does his secretary.

The bill would establish a check-off box on tax returns to permit taxpayers to voluntarily contribute to pay down the national debt, which has surpassed $16 trillion.

"If Warren Buffett and others like him truly feel they're not paying enough in taxes, they can use the Buffett Rule Act to put their money where their mouth is and voluntarily send in more to pay down the national debt," Scalise said in a statement. "The problem we’re having in America is not that we are taxed too little, it’s that Washington is spending too much, and you don't solve that problem by sending Washington even more money to spend in the form of job-killing tax hikes.’’

The Treasury’s Bureau of Public Debt accepts contributions to reduce the public debt under a little-known program established during the Kennedy administration. The bureau received roughly $7.6 million from October 2011 through July.

The legislation seeking to clarify ownership over space artifacts grows out of an effort last year by Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell to sell a checklist he used in his 1970 mission.

A spokesman for the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, noted that throughout the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, NASA managers routinely allowed astronauts to keep mementos, such as space suit emblems. But several years ago, NASA began to challenge astronaut’s ownership of artifacts, raising questions about the rights to items in astronauts’ possession, donated to colleges and museums, transferred to family members, or privately sold.

The legislation would allow astronauts to keep such items as personal logs and checklists — but not moon rocks.

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richard.simon@latimes.com

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