Congressional Observer: September 2006

 - September 14, 2006, 4:51 AM

• The dog days of August descended on the Capitol right on schedule, and Congressional lawmakers escaped the doldrums as they usually do–by recessing for the month. Most headed for their home districts to catch up locally and
to prepare for the coming elections.

Before closing up shop, the House burned the midnight oil and approved changes to the federal minimum wage (up to $7.25 an hour from $5.15), estate taxes and pension laws, but the Senate had different views, which requires a resolution. The House and Senate reached no accord on immigration (the House passed legislation last December), and negotiations to reconcile the bills have not taken place.

• In spite of promises that lobbying reform bills would be reconciled and passed early in the year, House-Senate negotiators have been unable to agree on a number of provisions. More recently, senior House and Senate Republicans have been working on separate resolutions that would change congressional rules rather than revise lobbying regulations or ethics statutes. Government watchdog groups have opposed the bills on the grounds that they are inadequate. They have resigned themselves to the fact that if there are any changes at all, they would be minimal and lack punch. Even if Congress adopts bare-bones measures, passage of a full-scale bill was unlikely before the 109th Congress calls it quits.

• Up until recess there had been 3,773 bills introduced in the Senate and 6,027 in the House. When the two chambers reconvene after Labor Day, there will be only 15 scheduled work days before a planned final adjournment for the fall elections. Democrats have been blaming Republicans for the 109th Congress earning the reputation of a “do-nothing Congress.” Yet, if the House holds to its schedule, it will have worked 84 days this year when votes were scheduled. That is 26 fewer days than the Congress that President Harry Truman called the “do-nothing Congress” during his 1948 campaign.

• The Senate Appropriations Committee finished its work on the FY2007 Transportation spending bill, which provides funding for the Department of Transportation and the FAA. The bill would give the FAA almost $14.3 billion in FY07. The budget would include $8.366 billion for operations (which is $262 million more than the FY06 funding level), $2.555 billion for facilities and equipment and $3.52 billion for the Airport Improvement Program. Although the House approved its  version of the bill, the Senate has not taken action.

• Several aviation bills were in the pipeline at press time.

– S.3661, introduced by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), and H.R.5830, the “Wright Amendment Reform Act,” introduced by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), would amend Section 29 of the International Air Transportation Competition Act of 1979 relating to air transportation to and from Love Field, Texas. The Wright Amendment, long a thorn in the side of Southwest Airlines, limited domestic and foreign airline service to and from Love Field. The bills would eliminate those restrictions. They state that nothing would affect general aviation service at Love Field including, but not limited to, flights to or from Love Field by general aviation aircraft for air-taxi service, private or sport flying, aerial photography, crop dusting, corporate aviation, medical evacuation, flight training and similar general aviation purposes.

– S.3763, introduced by Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), would amend Title 49 of the U.S. Code to modify bargaining requirements for proposed changes to the FAA’s personnel management system.

– In mid-July the House passed H.R.1871, the “Volunteer Pilot Organization Protection Act of 2006,” introduced by Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.). The purpose of the act is to promote the activities of nonprofit volunteer pilot organizations flying for public benefit and to sustain the availability of the services that such organizations provide, including transportation at no cost to financially needy medical patients for treatment, evaluation and diagnosis, as well as other flights of compassion for humanitarian and charitable purposes. Sensenbrenner pointed out that there are some 30 separate volunteer pilot organizations that function together as Angel Flight America, with as many as 8,000 pilots who fly between one and 50 missions at their own expense for the public benefit.