Congressional Observer: August 2006

 - September 14, 2006, 7:27 AM

• Congress recessed for the 4th of July, as it generally does when there is a national holiday, but, before adjourning, lawmakers passed a $94.5 billion emergency spending bill that included funds for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, hurricane recovery on the Gulf coast, a border security plan and avian flu preparedness. This was slightly more than the $92.2 billion limit the White House set but significantly less than the $109 billion that the Senate had proposed in its version of the legislation.

President Bush is pushing Congress to grant presidential line-item veto authority as a way to eliminate earmarked amendments that are slipped into larger bills without going through the budget process.

By a vote of 247 to 172, the House passed legislation that would allow the president to strike earmarks with the provision that a list of project cancellations would be submitted to Congress for an up-or-down vote within 45 days of a bill signing. A Senate version is awaiting a floor vote. Earmarked or “pork” projects ballooned from 3,055 in 1996 to 14,211 in 2004, with the overall cost doubling to $52.7 billion. Those totals have continued to rise. Congress did pass a line-item veto bill in 1996 but the Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional because it allowed the President to amend laws Congress had already passed. That bill required a two-thirds majority in both houses to overturn the President’s decision, but the new version allows Congress to restore targeted spending items on a simple majority vote.

At the close of business on June 30, there had been 3,629 bills introduced in the Senate and 5,744 in the House. The Senate bill total was bloated by the introduction of more than 100 bills relating to the suspension of duties on imports. Included were such items as certain girls’ and women’s water-resistant pants, padded and contoured infant potty seats, certain golf-bag bodies and the 100-percent tariff imposed on Roquefort cheese. Those bills, like House bills to name post offices to honor individuals, fall into the rubber-stamped approval category but will count toward the passage percentage rate for the 109th Congress.

The House passed the FY07 Transportation-Treasury appropriations bill by a vote of 406 to 22. If the bill is passed, the FAA would receive $8.366 billion for operations, $3.110 billion for facilities and equipment ($600 million more than its previous funding level) and $3.7 billion for the Airport Improvement Program, a boost of $950 million from the President’s FY07 budget request. Funds would also be provided for ATC modernization and contract towers and the hiring of additional aviation inspector and aircraft certification positions in FY07.

Lobbying reform legislation appears to have found a place relatively high up in the holding pattern and lawmakers are apparently losing interest in delivering a clearance to land. The Senate passed an ethics bill March 29 and the House passed its version May 3. Initial proposals called for a ban on privately funded junkets, taking gifts and ending discounted travel in private jets.

Instead, lawmakers opted for strengthening and doubling lobbyists’ disclosure reports. The Senate bill differs from the House bill and would ban lobbyists from providing gifts and meals to senators and their aides. A final package has to be drafted by a conference committee, though the House has yet
to name its negotiators.

Meanwhile, Washington watchdog groups are scrutinizing lawmaker profits that may have resulted from the efforts of lobbyists to have a legislator insert an earmark into a bill. For example, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) allegedly made a $2 million profit on the sale of land five miles from a highway project that he assisted in financing with federal funds.

Congress has several aviation bills in the pipeline:

› S.3621, the “Safer Skies Act of 2006,” introduced by Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), would permit qualified local law-enforcement officers to carry accessible weapons while on board an aircraft to the same extent and subject to the same limits as federal law-enforcement officers are permitted.

› H.R.5702, the “Aviation Industry Tax Equity Act of 2006,” introduced by Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.), would suspend the excise tax on aviation fuel used in commercial aviation.