Congressional Issues for 2000

Kerby Anderson

With Congress in session during an election year, there are a lot of issues before them that will no doubt be ignored. So this discussion will examine key congressional issues. Some of these will be domestic policy issues, while others will be foreign policy issues. I will begin our discussion with domestic policy and focus on the issue of religious liberty.

The Religious Liberty Protection Act

The last session of Congress considered the Religious Liberty Protection Act. This bill would attempt to establish some sanity and balance in the Supreme Courtís rulings on church/state issues.

Much of the debate goes back to a Supreme Court decision in 1990 known as Employment Division v. Smith. The case involved Native Americans smoking peyote, but the implications were much more far-reaching. The court ruled that states need only show a mere "rational basis" to justify laws that burden religious practices. So in 1993 Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to restore strict scrutiny. But the Supreme Court struck down that law in the 1997 case of City of Boerne v. Flores.

In the last few years, various cases have surfaced that point to the need for passage of the Religious Liberty Protection Act. In South Carolina, home Bible studies were found be in violation of local zoning ordinances while other meetings--such as Tupperware parties--were unaffected. In Pennsylvania, twenty Christian day care centers were required to change their curricula and hiring practices or face termination. In California death row inmates were prohibited from taking their Bibles to Bible studies.

And then there is the case of Rolling Hills, California. The city adopted an ordinance prohibiting churches in areas zoned commercial. By the way, adult bookstores and massage parlors can operate in this commercial zone, but churches could not. Churches in Rolling Hills, California, are only allowed in an "institutional" zone.

The Religious Liberty Protection Act would require government to have a compelling reason before it can restrict religious practices. These abuses surfaced after the Supreme Courtís original ruling and have surfaced again after the court struck down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

What seems to be forgotten in this debate is the fact that the First Amendment guarantees two things with regard to religious expression. First, it prevents the establishment of religion. Most Supreme Court decisions in the last few decades have been about the establishment clause of the Constitution. But there is a second issue: free exercise of religion. Fewer cases have been about the free exercise clause, and as the previous examples imply, the Court has often ruled against many free exercise cases. That is why a Religious Liberty Protection Act or some other legislation needs to be implemented.

Although the Constitution guarantees religious freedom and expression, the Supreme Court has ruled against many of those practices over the years instead of recognizing the free exercise of religion. The Religious Liberty Protection Act requires government to show a compelling reason why a religious practice is unconstitutional and thus keeps the court accountable to the Constitution.

Both clauses to the First Amendment are key to religious freedom in this country. Congress must work to bring a balance back between these two important aspects of religious liberty. At stake is much more than a home Bible study or a Christian day care. Ultimately what is at stake are all of our religious freedoms. Thatís why Congress needs to act in this session, and thatís why Congress needs to hear from you.

The Ten Commandments Defense Act

Another piece of legislation of interest is the Ten Commandments Defense Act. In the last session, the House of Representatives passed Representative Robert Aderholtís Ten Commandments Defense Act by a vote of 248 to 18. The vote caught many liberals flat-footed, but they began to mount an attack on the bill.

Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State says, "Congress probably should spend more time obeying the Ten Commandments and less time trying to exploit them for crass political purposes." Maureen Dowd says that Congress went the craven route by passing a measure to allow the Ten Commandments in classrooms. She believes that, "Before Congress hangs the Ten Commandments in the schools, it should make sure they are hanging where they are broken daily: Congress and the White House."

Even though they are meant as criticisms, these are good ideas. But that doesnít answer the key question of whether the Ten Commandments should be allowed to hang in public places. Ostensibly the High Court answered that question years ago in Stone v. Graham. The court ruled that the Ten Commandments could not hang in a public classroom in Kentucky, even though the Ten Commandments were chiseled in marble in the very court that handed down the ruling.

The Court argued that posting the Ten Commandments would be an endorsement of a particular religion--even though the Ten Commandments are revered by Jews, Protestants, and Catholics alike. They were also concerned that a student might read the Ten Commandments and begin to act on them.

Representative Aderholt is the sponsor the the Ten Commandments Defense Act. He also used to be a judge in Alabama, and he is aware of another judge in Alabama, Judge Roy Moore, who does hang the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. Representative Aderholtís bill is an attempt to extend the right that Judge Roy Moore currently enjoys.

Representative Bob Barr said that if the Ten Commandments had been posted at Columbine High School, the April 20, 1999 massacre would not have happened. Perhaps that is saying too much. Iíve had teachers and students ask me if I think that posting the Ten Commandments will eliminate the violence we see on some campuses. I donít believe that will be the case. There is nothing magic about posting the Ten Commandments.

But there is a bigger issue here. A few months ago I was on a television program dealing with school violence. Most of the participants wanted to talk about gun control and metal detectors in schools. I thought there were some important issues not be raised in the discussion. For example, What happens when you throw God out of the classroom, prayer out of the classroom, and the Ten Commandments out of the classroom? Doesnít that change the moral climate of the classroom? I would think so.

And maybe thatís the point. Posting the Ten Commandments isnít going to solve societyís ills. But posting some moral absolutes could make a difference in some studentsí lives by showing that there are a few absolutes left in society.

Tax Cuts

In the last session of Congress was a tax cut plan that would provide tax cuts to married couples, the self-employed, estates, and investors. Under the plan, the top tax rate for long-term capital gains would fall from 20 percent to 10 percent by 2005. Lower income taxpayers would, in some cases, see their capital gains tax rate fall from 10 percent to 8 percent as early as 2000.

The legislation would also repeal provisions in the tax code designed to insure that high income taxpayers and corporations pay at least a minimum tax. These provisions are extremely complex and would be scrapped. The plan would also abolish inheritance taxes and increase the annual contributions to individual retirement accounts from $2,000 to $5,000 a year.

The plan would also immediately increase the standard deduction for married couples to twice that for a single person. Currently the deduction is $4,300 for singles and $7,200 for married couples. This creates what many call a marriage penalty tax for dual earner couples.

The plan would also increase the tax brackets for married couples to twice that for a single taxpayer in 2005. The proponents of this plan believe that these various tax changes would eliminate the marriage penalty tax and save 21 million married couples an average of $1,400 per year.

Unfortunately, tax cuts did not pass and I think it is due in large part to citizen apathy. Consider the last budget cycle. Last year the government was running a surplus--not a bogus surplus, but a real surplus. Congress decides that some of that surplus should be given back to the American people in terms of a tax cut. Critics worry that giving a tax cut wouldnít be prudent if the economy falters. So the Republican leadership puts in provisions that keep a tax cut from being given unless certain economic factors are achieved. Congress passes the tax cut, but waits to submit it to the president in August so that they can build support for it. Congress returns in September, submits the budget, and the president vetoes the budget.

Whatís the reaction from the people? Overwhelming apathy. Those who do talk about it at all, say it wasnít worth the fight for a few dollars. After all, maybe the government needs the money more than I do anyway.

Well, let me put some of this in perspective. Not so many years ago, Americans held a tax revolt when the government was taking far less of our income than it is taking now. And a few centuries ago, Americans were willing to fight in a revolution over taxation that is insignificant compared to the rates today.

I believe that the American people are becoming used to high taxation. Oh sure, they complain about high taxes, but they donít do anything about it. Tax freedom day is later and later every year, but Americans no longer seem to care. If you ask me, thatís the real reason the tax cut bill went down to defeat.

Domestic issues are not the only issues clamoring for the attention of our Congress. Important foreign policy issues such as arms proliferation and gender issues in the military are front and center.

Weapons Proliferation

According to a new commission, the United States is ill- prepared to combat a growing and grave threat from proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons around the world. The commission, chaired by former Central Intelligence director John Deutch, raised concerns about both weapons and Americaís ability to respond.

Perhaps the gravest concern is what the panel calls the continuing economic meltdown in Russia. It cites seven instances since 1992 in which weapons-usable fissile materials were stolen. Russia doesnít know how much material it has, and it is increasingly vulnerable because of power outages, unpaid guards, and sporadic violence.

One commission member says that "The number one threat that needs attention is the continued disintegration of Russia as a civil society." This member ranked the Russian problem as high, if not higher, than the threat to the United States from ballistic missiles that was cited by a previous panel headed by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

The panel detailed four other danger areas. One was Chinaís export of missiles and dangerous technology. Another was the efforts by more than a dozen terrorist organizations to obtain nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. A third was the ability by North Korea and other hostile states to manufacture these weapons. A final danger was the growing concern over the instability in the Middle East and South and East Asia.

The commission also found that the U.S. Government is not effectively organized to combat proliferation of weapons. They also found that nine years after the Persian Gulf War, the U.S. still lacks the essential technology to detect chemical and biological weapons.

Add these revelations to the report released in 1999 by Representative Christopher Cox. His committeeís report has sent shock waves through Washington, as well it should. The report documents that China systematically stole significant American nuclear design secrets, enabling Beijing to accelerate its weapons program so that it now possesses thermonuclear weapons design information on a par with the United States.

The report documents that U.S. nuclear-weapons labs do not even meet "minimum" security standards and will not be able to do so until next year. This revelation is especially of concern in light of the ongoing investigation into Chinese espionage surrounding Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee.

Frankly I donít think anyone can underestimate the political impact of this report. Senate majority leader Trent Lott said after a special briefing that "the hair on the back of my neck stood up because itís scary." He went on to say, "I havenít seen anything like it before in my twenty-six years in Congress."

The Cox Report demonstrates that Chinese espionage has been taking place for years, and the current administration appears to have done little when it came to light. This may be one of the most serious breaches of security in the history of this nation. This session of Congress must effectively deal with these foreign policy issues. The White House is apparently not willing to lead on these foreign policy issues, so Congress must step into this vacuum. We cannot wait until the American people elect a new President.

Military Issues

Last summer, for the first time, the Navy allowed female ROTC students to spend two nights aboard a ballistic-missile submarine with its 155-man crew. In the past, female students were restricted to day trips.

If this policy change isnít evidence enough of mixed sex submarines, consider the recent statements by the Navy Secretary. This month he seemed to chide the submarine community for operating "a white-male preserve" and even threatened to withhold resources if the submarine community didnít change its ways. Sex integration is coming, even to submarines.

Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness says "The submarine force is being targeted for really harmful social change here for no particular reason." Up until now the Navyís fleet of 62 submarines seemed immune to the Pentagonís push to put women in virtually every support and combat job. A submarineís compact quarters, lack of privacy, and months underwater make it unsuitable for mixing young men and women. Submarines are also difficult to modify for mixed sex missions costing at least $1 million per vessel just for a modicum of changes.

I believe that the problems the Navy has already had with women on ships (pregnancies, jealousy, breakdown of morale) will be magnified on submarines. This new policy from the Navy is just a disaster waiting to happen. Two years ago problems arose when the Clinton administration opened combat ships and aircraft to women. But we havenít even begun to see the problems that will result from putting women in submarines.

Another key issue is military readiness. Last year Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott sent an urgent letter to President Clinton about this important issue. Senator Lott cited problems ranging from equipment shortages to overworked military personnel to problems with recruiting and retaining key personnel.

The administration blames missed recruiting goals on a good economy, but Senator Lott believes we need to raise salaries and points to the growing gap between civilian and military pay. The Army reduced last yearís recruiting goal by 12,000 while the Navy fell short 7,200.

Recent Congressional hearings exposed a number of problems. One staff report this past winter by the Senate Budget Committee revealed "extremely serious" readiness problems in the Army. Brigades showed up at the serviceís two main live firing training posts lacking enough infantry troops and mechanics.

Only 36 percent of Air Force pilots with nine years of service agreed to stay on, down from 60 percent two years ago. One report quoted pilots as saying, "All of the politically correct, brain washing, propaganda and white laboratory mouse training should be purged from the curriculum."

The problem is simple. The military has shrunk 40 percent since the Cold War ended, but it has been deployed in numerous (and questionable) peace keeping operations around the world. The military has been cut too much and been deployed too often. Itís time for Congress to act and reverse these trends.

© 2000 Probe Ministries International