WASHINGTON — An economy in flames turned Congress into a bunch of firefighters this year, trying to extinguish one financial flare-up after another. From the passage of an economic stimulus package early in the year to a stalemate between Republicans and Democrats over soaring gas prices and the Wall Street meltdown in the fall, pocketbook issues consumed most of Congress in this election year.
“Unfortunately, the word of the year may be ‘bailout,’” said U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn. “In this year, there was so much anxiety among the people that Congress was like firefighters, responding to the problem of the moment.”
But lawmakers say they will enter 2009 with some optimism. Though economic indicators project a continued weakness through at least the first half of next year, legislators say a new Congress and a new presidential administration give a chance for a fresh start.
“The challenges before us are wide and deep, but our country has mustered the strength to get through tough times in the past and will do so again,” said Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn.
Lawmakers said their priorities in 2009 will be energy independence, American global competitiveness in education, fiscal restraint and national security.
Rep. Wamp said the historic nature of President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration, combined with greater Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, will usher in some cooperation as Democrats unveil their agenda.
“I’m hoping Obama angers the far left more than the far right,” Rep. Wamp said. “He appears to be trying to come down the middle, and if he does he’ll find lots of cooperation.”
REBATES, GAS PRICES
The year began with bipartisan cooperation as Congress quickly passed a $150 billion economic stimulus package in February. The package included rebate checks of $600 for most individuals and $1,200 for married couples.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., was the lone Chattanooga-area lawmaker to vote against the stimulus, saying he disagreed with the government going further into debt for a short-term Band-Aid.
But even proponents of the stimulus now acknowledge that it did not provide its intended jolt to the economy, which continues to stagger in a recession.
“It was insufficient,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who voted for the bill.
As summer came along, gas prices soared, topping out at more than $4 a gallon in some places, and Congress stalemated over how to address the issue. Republicans argued for increased oil drilling off the U.S. coasts and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, while Democrats insisted that any energy legislation be focused on pushing alternative fuels and reducing consumption.
Neither side budged, and Congress never passed any energy legislation as lawmakers turned their attentions to a more pressing matter that emerged in September — the Wall Street credit crisis.
But some signs of bipartisan compromise on energy did emerge. Sens. Corker, Isakson and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., are in a “Gang of 20,” including 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans, that has proposed a plan that involves limited offshore drilling and invests heavily in alternative fuels.
“This crisis has not gone away, and I pledge to continue fighting to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and bring down our energy costs,” Sen. Chambliss said in a statement.
WALL STREET ROCKED
The financial crisis, which roiled the stock markets, dominated Congress’s agenda in September.
Though the White House announced a $700 billion rescue plan that involved the government purchase of distressed debt from financial firms to unlock credit markets, it drew criticism from many Republicans who balked at the price tag and questioned what they saw as a lack of oversight.
The House defeated the bill in its first vote before passing it on a second try after the Senate approved the package.
Sen. Chambliss bore the brunt of voter discontent over the rescue plan in his re-election campaign, and he was unable to avoid a runoff against Democrat Jim Martin in November, even though he had been favored to easily win earlier in the summer.
Sen. Chambliss supported the bailout bill, saying it was needed to help consumers obtain credit, but voters disapproved, seeing it as a bailout of an undisciplined Wall Street.
But Sen. Chambliss was able to recover and post a convincing win in the runoff over Mr. Martin four weeks later. The race brought national attention to Georgia, since Democrats had hoped to get one seat closer to a 60-vote supermajority to enable them to head off filibusters from Republicans.
In the November elections, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., cruised in his re-election campaign, and all Chattanooga-area House members also won re-election.
AUTO INDUSTRY WOES
The past few weeks brought another economic crisis, this time in the auto industry, as the Big Three — General Motors, Chrysler and Ford — sought government aid in the form of a $14 billion emergency loan.
Sen. Corker stepped into the spotlight, as the lead Republican negotiator, and demanded concessions from the United Auto Workers union, which led to a breakdown in talks.
Congress adjourned for the year on Dec. 11 without reaching an agreement on a bailout plan. But late last week, President George W. Bush announced that the government would lend $17 billion to the automakers. However, they also must present workable solutions to their problems by March 31 or the loans will have to be repaid immediately.
For his role in the negotiations, Sen. Corker was hailed by supporters for making a principled stand on accountability with government assistance and attacked by critics as a union buster eager to prop up foreign automakers and their nonunion work forces in his home state.
“I want to solve problems pragmatically and thoughtfully,” Sen. Corker said just after the bailout negotiations failed. “I was very disappointed and still feel a sense of surrealness that we couldn’t reach an agreement.”
Looking ahead to 2009, lawmakers said Congress is likely to consider another economic stimulus package early in the year, this time focusing on infrastructure projects throughout the nation.
One thing for Tennesseans to keep their eyes on is the 2010 gubernatorial race. Both Reps. Davis and Wamp have expressed interest in the race.
Rep. Davis has said he will make an announcement in early spring, while Rep. Wamp said he likely will make his plans known in January.
“I was duly elected to serve in Congress, and I plan to do my job 100 percent,” Rep. Wamp said. “But I do believe January is the operative month for me (to start a gubernatorial campaign), and I’m preparing to start in January.”
On the Democratic side, former state House Majority Leader Kim McMillan also is interested in running, while on the Republican side, former U.S. Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist, Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam and Shelby County District Attorney Bill Gibbons are considering bids.