Congressional Observer: February 2004

 - March 16, 2007, 10:15 AM

Congress bailed out of Washington in early December and was scheduled to land back in place on January 20. The recess provided ample time for reviewing legislative accomplishments and failures during the first session of the 108th Congress and for taking a look at what might happen in the second session.

For aviation, H.R.2115, the Flight 100-Century of Aviation and Revitalization Act, covered a broad range of aviation matters and funded the FAA with $59 billion for four years. Still languishing in committee pigeon holes were some 30 other bills relating to aviation, and the chances of any of those flying out to see the light of day are relatively slim. The fact of the matter is that aviation interests represent a small percentage of a legislator’s constituency and they simply have bigger fish to fry in behalf of their own welfare and for the people who cast votes.

With national elections coming in November, legislators gave due attention to voter-friendly bills, such as Medicare and tax cuts. Washington political pundits anticipate that bills in the second session that are calculated to credit a legislator for good work on behalf of local voters will receive serious consideration.

When the first session of this Congress opened last year, it took cognizance of its failure to pass timely fiscal year funding bills for 13 government agencies in the 107th Congress and vowed that it would not happen again in 2003. The government fiscal year ends every September 30 and, if new funding authorization bills are not passed by that time, continuing resolutions are necessary to allow those agencies to function on the previous year’s funding. By passing individual bills before the start of the new fiscal year, Congress would avoid jamming all bills that did not pass into one huge omnibus bill where “earmarked” or “pork” amendments abound. Last year there were 9,362 “earmarked” spending projects that cost taxpayers some $22.5 billion.

September 30 came and went, and at the close of congressional business in December bills that would provide funding for seven of 13 government agencies had not yet been passed. The net result of that congressional failure was that in December the House passed a $328 billion, 1,182-page omnibus spending bill by a 242 to 176 vote and sent it on to the Senate. The bill provides money for most of the government’s nonmilitary activities to include foreign aid, the National Weather Service, the space program and health, veterans and education programs. However, the Senate declined to consider the House bill until after the second session of Congress resumes on January 20. Early indications were that the Senate would be in no hurry and delay would give Senators the opportunity to add their own amendments to the House bill.

To nobody’s great surprise, there were thousands of chunks of “pork” amendments neatly tucked into the House omnibus bill. Government spending watchdogs have been having a field day by pointing out such amendments as $12.4 million for a nonprofit group to develop technologies for converting wastes from poultry processing plants in Missouri into an “alternative energy” source; $2 million for The First Tee Program in St. Augustine, Fla., to assist young people who want to learn to play golf; $50 million sought to build a $200 million indoor exhibit about the rain forest in Iowa; $400,000 for the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky., for a replica of a mule barn in LaSalle, Ill.; $1.8 million for the Appalachian fruit laboratory in Kearneysville, W. Va.; $270,000 for potato storage in Madison, Wis.; and $325,000 for construction of a swimming pool in Salinas, Calif. One watchdog pointed out that the 14th congressional district in Illinois, the home district of House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R), would receive nearly one-third of the $16.5 million earmarked for projects in Illinois even though it has only about 5 percent of the population. Among those projects are $3 million for the Provena Mercy Center, $3.2 million for the Association for Individual Development and $1 million for the Plano Community Library District for “expenses.”

Not to be outdone, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) added some 22 items that would “benefit San Francisco and the Bay area,” among which was $9 million for San Francisco’s Municipal Railway for a new mile-and-a-half subway line and $2.5 million for road work related to the subway.

Alas and alack, aviation interests cannot ferret out any earmarked amendments that would benefit them, which again gave credence to the small voting bloc that aviation can bring to bear.

• As of December 8 there were 3,699 bills introduced in the House and 2,004 in the Senate. Historically, Congress passes about 3 percent of introduced bills in each session, and those that do not make the grade either pass quietly into oblivion, or are re-introduced during the next and subsequent sessions.