Government reports on the economy issued this week underscored the highs and lows of the current recovery.
On the plus side, the economy in 2003 grew at its fastest rate in three years, interest rates remain at 45-year lows, and Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan says the economy eventually will replace jobs lost in the last recession.
On the down side, job growth has been slow, wage and benefit increases are almost non-existent, and nearly two million people will exhaust their jobless benefits in the first half of the year.
What's emerging from those contrasting economic portraits is a mountain of consumer debt. And unlike Uncle Sam, when the debt becomes too large, Americans increasingly are filing for bankruptcy. It's little wonder then that Congress this week rekindled debate on federal bankruptcy laws, albeit with a decidedly partisan flavor.
Now, Congress is attempting to make it more difficult for consumers to shed their debts. Under current law, Chapter 7 of U.S. Bankruptcy code allows people to escape paying any of their credit card and other debts. Filings under the more familiar Chapter 13, force people to repay debts over time, in accordance with a court-approved plan.
The farm bankruptcy law, also known as Chapter 12, is the only temporary chapter in federal bankruptcy law. It allows farmers to reorganize their debts without having to liquidate their farms and equipment. It was enacted in 1986 but has been extended every time it expired. Nearly 700 cases were filed under Chapter 12 last year, an increase of more than 100-percent from 2002.
This year, the extension was threatened by a Senate refusal to accept broader bankruptcy laws approved in the House. House Republicans sought to force Senate action by tying the farm bankruptcy law to other provisions.
New legislation, which was being pushed by banking and credit card companies, was debated in the U.S. House of Representatives this week that would make Chapter 12 permanent.
By week's end, the House bill was combined with a similar measure in the Senate and sent back to the upper House.
Meanwhile, a Montana Congressman has introduced legislation to restore funding and end the delay in implementation of Country of Origin Labeling, or COOL.
Congressman Denny Rehberg claims COOL enables consumers to make an informed choice. The Republican says Americans purchase clothes, electronics and other goods with labels telling where the products came from, but aren't allowed to know the origin of their steaks and hamburgers.
The bill would repeal the two-year delay in COOL implementation passed just last week, and would contain funding for USDA to launch the labeling program this fall.