Congressional Observer: October 2007

 - September 27, 2007, 5:38 AM

Lawmakers had much to think about when they returned from their summer break at the end of August. A Gallup poll revealed that the job approval rating for the Democrat-led Congress had dropped to 18 percent, the lowest rating since Gallup began tracking public opinion in 1974. When the Democrats took control of Congress in January the job approval rating was 35 percent. (It was 21 percent in December when the Republicans were in control.) It was no surprise that the two parties blamed one another for the low rating.

What remained to be seen when Congress resumed business was just how much public opinion would influence debates about war spending, a Democrat plan to expand the federal health insurance program for poor children and other issues. President Bush asked for $50 billion more to fund the Iraq war, a request that flies in the face of a Government Accountability Office report that the current undertaking meets only three of 18 Congressionally mandated benchmarks for military and political progress.

At press time, still on the table were appropriations bills for various government agencies whose funding would expire September 30, the end of the federal fiscal year. President Bush has threatened to veto nine of 12 appropriations bills because they include some $22 billion more than he requested in the federal budget. Among the appropriations bills was H.R.2881, the “FAA Reauthorization Act of 2007,” introduced by Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), which would authorize appropriations for the FAA for Fiscal Year 2008 to 2011.

Given the few legislative days in September to clear the appropriations bills, it appeared likely that Congress might have to resort to continuing resolutions that would allow agencies to spend at last year’s funding until new money bills were passed.

The next set of elections is more than a year away, but lawmakers, especially those seeking higher office, can be counted on to plan ahead and enact legislation calculated to win votes. Political election analysts anticipate difficulty for both parties as they struggle to overcome public opinion about their performance. At stake–beside the presidency–is control of Congress. Two Republican senators raised some additional concerns about party control in the Senate. Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) announced his “intent” to resign as of September 30 following his arrest on June 11 at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and subsequent guilty plea to charges of disorderly conduct. At press time he had decided to contest the charges. Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), 80, who will have served 30 years in the Senate, announced that he would retire in January 2009.

Washington government watchdog groups continue to keep an eye on legislators’ progress on ethics and earmarks. Ethics legislation bars lobbyists from providing meals and gifts to lawmakers, but there are loopholes. For example, the legislation does not pertain to fund-raising events, so lobbyists cannot pick up the tab unless they give members of Congress a campaign check. Lobbyists can invite lawmakers to events such as receptions and charity golf tournaments and can underwrite visits if there is some sort of official or ceremonial role. There is a provision in the legislation that would require more disclosure by organizations as to who is paying for and participating in lobbying activities. At the moment, however, most of that information is proprietary and protected by Supreme Court decisions.

As to earmarked pork-barrel spending, Congress approved the “Honest Leadership and Government Act,” which requires that special appropriations added by individual lawmakers be listed in an online database at least 48 hours before they come to a vote. However, Congressional leaders can certify that a bill contains no earmarks and there is no way to challenge that certification. Nevertheless, a majority
of lawmakers fight to get pork projects into various appropriations bills and, to date, the House has approved 6,500 earmarked amendments. There are a few waste fighters in Congress; most prominent among them is Rep. Jake Flake (R-Ariz.), who has introduced amendments to challenge a number of pork projects. (He has met with limited success.) Flake was expected to continue offering pork-cutting amendments throughout the rest of this session of Congress.