Congressional Observer: October 2007

 - November 26, 2007, 11:52 AM

When Congress returned from its August recess, both houses set about to debate what to do about the declining budget surplus and what to do about spending.
However, the dramatic terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon changed the agenda, put partisan bickering on the shelf and unified both parties in their support of President Bush and what the country needs to do. Thus, Congress began the task of providing legislation that America would need to fund and carry out the numerous emergency programs that are bound to come.

First up was President Bush’s request for $20 billion, which would be a largely unrestricted fund from which the President could draw after consultation with Congress. This can be considered an unusual grant inasmuch as Congress prefers to retain its authority over spending. The Senate promptly upped the Administration’s request to $40 billion and sent the bill on to the House, which unanimously approved the emergency spending package. The American public can expect similar fast action for any bill directly related to funding for action against the terrorists.

• Back in April, the Bush Administration estimated a surplus (defined as when the government takes in more revenue than it spends in a given year) of $124 billion, give or take a few billion. However, figures released by the White House Office of Management and Budget pointed out that Congress and the Bush Administration spent $9 billion, corporations put off paying $28 billion in back taxes until next year, the government has been obliged to send out $40 billion in tax rebates and the IRS collected $46 billion less than expected. Revised estimates indicate that there now may be only a $1 billion surplus. 

So, the Bush Administration and Congress have been pointing a lot of fingers in many directions. Democrats complained that the tax cut eradicated the available surplus and President Bush and the Republicans argue that the tax cut gives taxpayers’ money back to them so that the Democrats cannot spend it.

With big spending bills looming, there was talk about dipping into the growing the Social Security and Medicare surpluses generated by withholding from paychecks, which is something that politicians are reluctant to do to fund government operations.  There may be few choices open and, if money is needed, the possibility looms that Congress will take a look at the surplus money in other government trust funds. For instance, would the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, firewalled against expenditures except for other than the purposes intended, be a target for the future just as it has been in the past?

Congress could also give some thought to curbing spending. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.), a well known pork barrel politician who is Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, issued a warning that the shrinking federal surplus could cause Congress to cut back President Bush’s proposal to increase defense spending. But, under a program for National Scenic Byways projects, some $6.5 million will go to West Virginia, which comes as no surprise because Byrd authored the original bill.
In another area, the New York Post’s Deborah Orin came up with U.S. Navy data showing that House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) used a Navy C-32 (a Boeing 757 configured for VIPs with only 42 seats and a stateroom) to go to Europe to attack Bush’s foreign policy. The eight-day early July trip to Brusssels, Berlin, Moscow and London cost $231,426 for the C-32 and some $4,800 was spent for on-board supplies. And, according to story, costs for Gephardt, his wife, six staffers, eight other Congressman, wives of four of them and three military staff escorts did not include meals and stays at upscale hotels.

Then came The Washington Post item about Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.), who warned of dire consequences if Congress failed to boost federal crop subsidies. Citing Department of Agriculture records, the item pointed out that between 1996 and last year, farm and land-holding companies owned by Berry with relatives in eastern Arkansas have received $750,449 in federal crop subsidies. And at least 11 other congressmen have benefited from farm subsidies that, in many cases, they voted to support.

Well, as one former distinguished Senator once opined, “A few million here and a few million there and pretty soon it all adds up.”

• In spite of the crises generated by the terrorist attacks, Congress still faced the formidable task of completing work on 13 pending spending bills before the new fiscal year begins on October 1. Failure to do so would require resolutions to keep government agencies operating until bills are passed. At press time, the House approved nine bills and the Senate five. Two big bills which would boost defense spending by some $18 billion and increase funding for a missile defense system and funding for education, health and labor had yet to be brought up at the subcommittee level. Also on tap are patients’ rights, campaign finance, energy, prescription drugs for the elderly, trade treaties, a minimum-wage increase, a tax cut for small businesses, funding for social programs run by religious groups and funding for stem-cell research.

• As to aviation matters, there has been little reportable activity. Charter operators may have found an ally in House Ways and Means Committee chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), who has voiced his intentions to go to bat for charter operators with IRS over an IRS technical advice memorandum (TAM) that charter operators should retroactively pay a $2.75 segment fee on per-passenger basis and not per aircraft chartered.

The House aviation subcommittee held a late-August hearing on H.R.2107, the End Gridlock at Our Nation’s Critical Airports Act, introduced by Rep. William Lipinski (D-Ill.). The bill would amend federal aviation law to prohibit a state, local government or a political authority of at least two states from enforcing a law that would require a certificate of approval before construction or operation of an airport development project at a large or medium hub airport if the project meets certain standards established by the Secretary of Transportation. It would also regulate an airport improvement grant if the project meets such standards. Pros and cons: the pros argue that the bill would streamline the airport runway construction process, and the cons say the bill would interfere with State and local decision-making processes.