Congressional Observer: August 2004

 - July 25, 2007, 5:26 AM

• Congress recessed for about a week to celebrate the Fourth of July holiday and returned to face a full plate of pending legislation before recessing again from July 26 through early next month. As of June 25, the bill count in the House of Representatives rose to 4,753 and, in the Senate, to 2,606, which certainly gave legislators plenty to debate.

• November’s Election Day is coming ever closer, and legislators up for election can be counted upon to concern themselves with bills calculated to bolster their campaigns. Congress also faces its annual dilemma for dealing with appropriations for 13 government agencies by Sept. 30, 2004. In spite of good intentions, Congress has not met this deadline for the past several years, and that failure has led to an “Omnibus” bill that lumps into one bill the funding for unfunded agencies. And that, traditionally, gives birth to any number of “pork” amendments.

• To date, the Senate approved a $417 billion Department of Defense spending bill, while the House Appropriations Committee voted for a $416.9 billion measure. The Senate bill did not contain an amendment to raise the nation’s debt limit, while the House bill had that language. According to a Treasury Department spokesman, the federal government could reach the limit of $7.4 trillion by the end of summer or early fall.

The House passed its fiscal 2005 energy and water spending bill that, primarily, funds water infrastructure projects and nuclear waste cleanup. However, legislators added $354 million in pork-barrel projects that included, among other items, $400,000 for studies on the environmental impact of Asian oysters in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay; $14 million for the Chickamauga Lock in Tennessee; and $11.5 million in the Calumet region in Indiana.

• Give and take seems to be the name of the game when it comes to what to do about business aircraft. The Jumpstart Our Business Strength (JOBS) Act contains a provision for extending, throughout next year, the accelerated bonus depreciation “place in service” date at the end of this year for newly purchased general aviation aircraft. The Senate and House of Representatives approved their versions of their bills, and even though the language in both bills is very similar, the bills were dispatched to a conference committee before a final bill can be sent to President Bush for his approval and signature. Industry officials believe the bill will stimulate sales of business aircraft, and this could be considered as a give.

On the other hand, H.R.4352, the Corporate Jet Tax Shelter Reform Act of 2004, would limit the deductions for personal use of a business aircraft–a minus. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who sponsored this legislation, was named “Man of the Month” in the July 2004 issue of Esquire. As a House freshman, Emanuel has caught the eye and attention of Democrat leaders, and his name has been mentioned for a possible Cabinet position should Sen. John Kerry win the presidential election.

• The persistent Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who vowed to have Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport opened to general aviation traffic, had no progress report on this subject, so the matter is still in the holding pattern.

However, Mica managed to sneak in a provision to last year’s Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act that requires airlines to include information about each airplane’s “country of final assembly” on the safety placard inside each seat pocket. There are only two major airline aircraft manufacturers, Boeing and Airbus, and each has a different view on the need for this information. Boeing supports the move, but Airbus asserts that the safety card would be an odd place for that information since all commercial aircraft have to meet the same safety requirements regardless of where the aircraft was assembled. The FAA estimated it will cost the airlines some $522,000 to comply with the law for the 753,800 airline seats that have to be placarded.

• In testimony before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, spokesmen for the General Accounting Office (GAO), the Congressional investigative arm, and the DOT Inspector General stated that there would not be enough air traffic controllers to handle the projected growth of air traffic unless the government takes steps to boost its hiring and training programs. They advised that half of the air traffic controller workforce will be retired by 2012, as will 93 percent of the controller supervisors. The FAA has hired one controller this year and has not requested funding in fiscal 2005 to accommodate hiring new controllers. The FAA hired 762 new controllers in 2003 and 400 retired last year.

FAA Administrator Marion Blakey stated that the FAA is actually overstaffed by 87 controllers but, at the same time, she acknowledged that some 10 locations are short staffed, including some centers that account for a heavy volume of air traffic.

• H.R.4533, the “Air Tanker Emergency Release Act of 2004,” introduced by Rep. Jeff Blake (R-Ariz.), would require the temporary reinstatement of contracts for large firefighting air tankers that were canceled on May 10, 2004, by the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of the Interior.

• On the lighter side, Jack Hitt, writing in Mother Jones magazine, announced his third annual Diddly Awards, the magazine’s tribute to the “most profligate, prejudiced and just plain pig-headed members of Congress.” Among the recipients were House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) for the Roi Louis Grand Prix Award for saying, “I am the federal government” when a restaurant manager asked him to extinguish his cigarette because they were in a federal building. And to Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) went the Horse-Head-in-Your-Bed Award, for threatening other senators with losing home-state projects if they voted against an appropriations bill. Stevens is well known for his many pork-barrel projects that benefit his constituency.