What A Congress' First Bill Tells Us About The Nation's Political Priorities

Jan 3, 2017
Originally published on January 3, 2017 10:51 am

The House and Senate are back in Washington today for the start of the 115th Congress. With GOP control of both chambers and soon the Oval Office, Republicans are promising an aggressive agenda that will prioritize the repeal of the current president's signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act. The Senate is expected to start that process with a budget resolution this week.

After the pomp and circumstance of taking the official oath and the swearing-in of new members is complete, the top Congressional priority is usually given the honor of being introduced as House Resolution 1, or "H.R. 1" for short.

With the rollback of Obamacare working first through the Senate, Republican Speaker Paul Ryan will not take the privilege of introducing that as H.R. 1, but looking back at the first bill to be introduced in the House in past sessions of Congress gives a glimpse at the priorities of legislators at the time.

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009

Speaker at bill introduction: Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Control of House: Democratic
Control of Senate: Democratic
Final action on bill: Signed into law by President Barack Obama

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is the official name for what is generally known as "the stimulus."

Washington was 180 degrees from where things are in 2017 — Democrats had control of both the House and the Senate and Barack Obama had just won the presidency. Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi used the H.R. 1 designation for the bill which was intended to address the effects of the Great Recession.

Eventually Congress passed the behemoth $787 billion plan, which aimed to save or create millions of jobs and funneled spending to highway infrastructure investments, improvements to public housing and expanding broadband access to underserved areas.

Before its passage, President Obama lobbied hard to get congressional Republicans to support the legislation, but the measure failed to garner a single GOP House member and only three Republican senators.

Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act, 2011

Speaker at bill introduction: John Boehner, R-Ohio
Control of House: Republican
Control of Senate: Democratic
Final action on bill: Died in the 112th Congress, but later became the legislative vehicle for Disaster Relief Appropriations Act in the next Congress.

Following the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans picked up a net total of 63 House seats and regained control of the chamber. Much of the Democrats' historic losses were blamed on a sluggish economy and backlash to the passage of the Affordable Care Act.

With Republicans back in control of the House, Speaker John Boehner sought to make good on the GOP election-year promise to restore "fiscal sanity" and cut back on government spending.

He used H.R. 1 to introduce Rep. Hal Rogers' Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act, 2011 bill to do just that. In a statement, Rogers said at the time that the bill's spending reductions were "historic."

"HR 1 provides $1.028 trillion for discretionary programs through the remainder of fiscal year 2011, a level $100 billion below the level President Obama requested in his fiscal year 2011 budget one year ago."

But this was the start of the so-called "Do-Nothing" era of Congress – not a whole lot was being done with a divided government as Democrats maintained control of the Senate and White House. Though the bill passed easily in the House and was sent over to the Senate, no consequential action was made on it.

That is not until December of 2012.

By that time two major events had taken place: President Obama was re-elected and Hurricane Sandy walloped the East Coast with New York and New Jersey taking the brunt of the storm. It was one of the costliest storms in our nation's history and more than 100 people died in the U.S. alone.

When the Senate finally took action on the measure, it became the legislative vehicle to supply funds for disaster relief efforts. The Senate amended the bill and passed it late in the year. According to the website GovTrack.us, the bill died in the 112th Congress because differences between the House and Senate versions of the measure were never resolved.

The bill was reintroduced in the 113th Congress and came to be known as the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act, 2013.

Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007

Speaker at bill introduction: Nancy Pelosi, D-CA
Control of House: Democratic
Control of Senate: Democratic
Final action on bill: Signed into law by President George W. Bush

Nancy Pelosi's first legislative action as Speaker of the House was bringing this bill up for a vote. Fresh off their sweeping gains in the 2006 midterm elections that gave Democrats control of Congress, members were eager to demonstrate their national security prowess as the Iraq War dragged on Republicans. It had been more than five years since the 2001 terrorist attacks and Democrats intended to make good on a campaign promise to put in place many of the recommendations put forth by the 9/11 Commission, which was released in July 2004.

The highlights of this legislation included funding increases to state and local government anti-terrorism efforts and mandating the Department of Homeland Security inspect all cargo arriving in the U.S. by sea and plane. A provision was added before President Bush signed it into law favored by many Republicans that shielded Americans who report suspicious activity to authorities. When he signed it into law in August 2007, Bush said he was "pleased" by this addition but also called for Congress to take further oversight action.

"There is still other work to be done. I continue to believe that Congress should act on the outstanding 9/11 Commission recommendations to reform the legislative branch's oversight of intelligence and counter-terrorism activities, which the Commission described as dysfunctional."

Congressional Accountability Act of 1995

Speaker at bill introduction: Newt Gingrich, R-GA
Control of House: Republican
Control of Senate: Republican
Final action on bill: Signed into law by President Bill Clinton

Like our previous entry, this piece of legislation was the first introduced at the beginning of a Congress in which one party, this time the Republicans, were fresh off historic gains. The 1994 midterms elections, commonly referred to as the "Republican Revolution," saw the GOP take control of the Senate and seize control of the House for the first time in 40 years. Seeking to put forth conservative principles outlined in the "Contract with America," which the new House Speaker Newt Gingrich was chief architect of, the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 was given the status of H.R. 1.

This bill made certain that rules governing private sector workplaces are applicable to Congress. The bill passed the House with no opposition 429-0. The Senate passed their version in similarly overwhelming fashion and President Clinton signed it into law.

The action would apply a number of major laws to Congress including the Fair Labor Standards Act, which establishes minimum wage and overtime pay to employees, and the Americans with Disabilities Act that prohibits discrimination against people physical or mental challenges. The law also established the Office of Compliance, which covers more than 30,000 federal workers. It is a non-partisan independent federal agency created to enforce the law and to serve as a place for workers to file complaints.

Regulation Reform Act of 1981

Speaker at bill introduction: Thomas 'Tip' O'Neill, D-MA
Control of House: Democrat
Control of Senate: Republican
Final action on bill: Died in the House

This bill was introduced in the 97th Congress and was intended to make regulations more cost-effective and directed each federal agency to provide instructions on how the public could take part in the regulatory process. The bill also required agencies to include instructions for the public to obtain agency reports on "each proposed and final major rule instructions."

Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill slated regulation reform for the H.R. 1 designation following the landslide 1980 elections marked the start of the conservative Reagan era. That election returned Republicans to control of the Senate for the first time in a quarter century, in addition to giving the GOP the White House back.

Other than a few hearings held by a House Rules Subcommittee, this bill went nowhere and eventually died in the House without coming up for a vote.

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