Earlier this year the 106th Congress was referred to as the "Do Nothing Congress." Recently we have completed the first session and attempted to tackle a wide range of difficult issues such as financial services modernization, a minimum wage increase, campaign finance reform, HMO reform, Medicare and Social Security reform.
After a tough year of partisan politics and preelection year grand-standing, the 106th Congress of the United States has done "Next-To-Nothing" on the real pressing issues.
The one legislative initiative that did have the time to be debated and passed through the Senate at the behest of the powerful banking lobby was the Financial Services Modernization Bill, although I believe it is greatly flawed. While modernization of the industry is long overdue and will provide the vast majority of customers with greater opportunities and the ability for one-stop-shopping, privacy issues will quickly become an even greater concern for most customers if we don't assure them of some basic safeguards.
The Financial Services Modernization Bill will change the way banks, insurance companies and stock and bond firms do business with each other and the public for the first time in several generations. As a member of the Senate Banking Committee, I was able to take part in the formulation of this bill, but unfortunately, special interests won out, providing little to no financial privacy protection for consumers.
Banks and other financial institutions that are trusted with personal financial information are now allowed by law to share that sensitive information within their own company or, with certain exceptions, sell it to the highest bidder.
With only one major piece of major legislation passed through Congress this session, the rest of our time here in Washington was a series of missed opportunities. As a whole, this Congress failed to address the real concerns of the American people. This Congress could have passed a strong and meaningful patient's bill of rights. Instead it passed a weaker version that provides little comfort to those at the mercy of giant HMOs.
It could have passed campaign finance reform and regained the respect of the voters who have been disillusioned by "big money's" powerful influence over decisions made in Washington.
Congress could also have added a prescription drug benefit to the Medicare program so that seniors in this country would no longer have to choose between groceries or medication. We also could have taken the appropriate steps this year to save Social Security for future generations.
I voted for or was strongly supportive of all these initiatives. Unfortunately, these legislative options were available to the members of the 106th Congress, but the current leadership chose to ignore the real needs of the American people.
The fact that the nuclear waste bill was not debated this session is a big win for Nevada. The slow pace and partisan bickering actually aided us and our battle to keep this waste out of Nevada.
Since this year's session of Congress ran longer than usual and it took nearly a year to pass 13 appropriations bills, there was a strong possibility that debate of a permanent storage site for the nation's high level nuclear waste could have come to the Senate floor.
In this instance, the lack of time was on our side. With limited time left in the session, my threat of using any and all parliamentary measures at my disposal to bring the Senate's pace to a crawl, consideration of the nuclear waste bill was put off until next year.
However, everyone needs to remember that this battle is far from over and that it is very likely that the Senate will consider this legislation at some point in the coming year.
Even though there was very little accomplished this year, we were fortunate enough to come away with additional funding for more teachers in our children's classrooms, more police on our streets and we fulfilled our financial obligations to the United Nations.
This year's budget agreement includes $1.3 billion for more teachers in our nation's schools to reduce class size over the next six years. The agreement also provides funding to hire 50,000 more police officers around the country to further contribute to the falling crime rate.
Some may disagree, but as the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world, I believe that we are obligated to take an active role in the formulation of international policy within the United Nations. Most importantly, payment of our debt allows us to lead by example.
While this Congress was the least productive in my entire 11 year career in the United States Senate, I still hope for better results in the next session. It will be my last year here in Washington, and I plan on working hard for Nevadans until my last day in office.
I will continue to fight against a nuclear waste dump in Nevada as well as for privacy protections for all consumers, the fair treatment of the mining and gaming industries and the protection of older Americans.
Richard Bryan is Democratic senator from Nevada.