Congressional Observer: July 2006

 - September 15, 2006, 11:44 AM

– Congress took a 10-day break over the Memorial Day holiday and on its return faced a number of issues that had been left in the holding pattern. Senate Democrats filibustered an attempt to eliminate the so-called “death tax,” and Republicans fell three votes short of what it would take to break the filibuster, so the current exemptions of $2 million of an individual’s estate and $4 million of a married couple’s estate still stand. By a vote of 49 to 48, the Senate rejected a constitutional amendment that would have defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

Senate and House negotiators compromised on an emergency spending bill to fund the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina recovery and cut some $14 billion in earmarked or “pork” projects that had been larded into the Senate version of the bill. Stripped was $700 million to move a railroad in Mississippi, which the media has dubbed “The Railroad to Nowhere”; $500 million for Northrop Grumman’s shipbuilding operations in Mississippi; and $289 million to compensate anyone who is adversely affected by the influenza vaccine. The compromised bill comes closer to the $92.2 billion limit set by President Bush and was slated for a vote late last month.

– The results of a nine-month study by the Center for Public Integrity, cosponsored by American Public Media and Northwestern University’s Medill News Service, were made public and revealed that lawmakers of both parties accepted nearly $50 million in privately funded trips from corporations and groups seeking legislative favors. Between January 2000 and June last year, House and Senate members and their aides were away from Washington on some 23,000 trips, including at least 200 trips to Paris, 150 to Hawaii and 140 to Italy. Some 2,300 of the trips cost $5,000 or more, at least 500 cost $10,000 or more and 16 cost $25,000 or more.

The study said, “While some of these trips might qualify as legitimate fact-finding missions, the purpose of others is less clear.” After notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe public officials, in part with lavish overseas trips, congressional offices have reined in their privately funded travel, but lawmakers can still accept travel for official purposes from private interests without limit.

Researchers found more than 1,000 violations of congressional rules such as inadequately filed disclosure reports, members taking more than the one family member permitted and lobbyists picking up the tabs for travel.

– Both the House and the Senate approved earmark, or “pork,” reforms that called for appropriations bills and conference reports to include a list of the earmark amendments along with the names of the requesting lawmakers. However, a loophole exempts earmarks directed to federal entities. A watchdog spending group estimates that 42 percent of earmarks go to federal entities and therefore would not be subject to any new labeling rules. An example of such an earmark is Defense Department appropriations that provide $1.7 million for a military operation to keep brown tree snakes in Guam.

– That infamous Alaskan “Bridge to Nowhere,” a pet project of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), was in the news again courtesy of the House Appropriations Committee. The earmark that had set aside $230 million for the bridge had been voided, but the money was given to Alaska to spend as it wished. As it turned out, Alaska wished to build the bridge anyway. By a voice vote, the House committee passed an amendment that would prohibit Alaska from spending federal money on the bridge.

– At press time a number of aviation bills were in the pipeline.

• S.2857, introduced by Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Nev.), and H.R.5425, introduced by Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), are companion bills that would amend the International Air Transportation Competition Act of 1979 relating to air transportation to and from Dallas Love Field.

• H.R.5342, introduced by Rep. Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.), stipulates that the Federal Communications Commission, FAA or any other agency must wait until June 1 next year to take any action to authorize the use of any electronic device that was banned for use on board airborne airliners by the FAA on Dec. 15, 2004.

• H.R.5449, introduced by Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), would amend Title 49, U.S. Code, to modify bargaining requirements for proposed changes to the FAA’s personnel management system.