Congressional Observer: June 2006

 - September 20, 2006, 7:14 AM

All the public uproar and the introduction of numerous bills seeking to control lobbying abuse prompted by the scandals involving one-time, big-time lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.), convicted of taking bribes from defense contractors, have produced what might be only watered-down results.

By a vote of 217 to 213, the House passed a bill that would require lobbyists to file quarterly reports that detail donations made to federal candidates and political action committees. In addition, gifts made to legislators or aides would be made public. This bill would also create a new point of order against any appropriations bill or conference report not accompanied by a list of member earmarks.

The Senate version of the bill differs and would require disclosure of grassroots lobbying activities, ban lobbyist gifts and ask ethics panels to prescreen member trips sponsored by a third party. Both bills were sent to a conference committee for resolution.

• The Washington-based Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) released its 2006 Congressional Pig Book, which identified 9,963 pork-barrel projects in the 11 appropriations bills for 2006 that totaled a record-breaking $29 billion. CAGW awarded “The Flushing Our Money Down the Toilet Award” to Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) for $1 million for the Waterfree Urinal Conservation Initiative, which would direct the Navy to study water-free urinals; “The Mooooving Our Money Award” to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) for $250,000 for the National Cattle Congress in Waterloo, Iowa; “The Cool Hand Duke Award” for $5 million for a provost marshal screening facility at a Marine base in the district of newly incarcerated former Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham; and “The Taxpayers Are Knocked Out Award” to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for $100,000 for the Richard Steele Boxing Club in Henderson, Nev.

• The Senate ignored a veto threat by President Bush and passed, by a vote of 77 to 21, a $109 billion emergency spending bill whose original intent was to offset war costs in Iraq and Afghanistan and to help Louisiana and Mississippi rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

Lawmakers added numerous spending amendments, totaling $17 billion, that included protecting riverbanks in California; rebuilding a highway in Hawaii; upgrading a hurricane barrier in Providence, R.I.; and providing funds to New England shell fishermen for their losses from a red tide outbreak.

Sen. Thom Coburn (R-Okla.) attempted to strip a few extraneous provisions from the bill, among them $700 million to move a CSX railroad line that now runs along the Mississippi coast, some $140 million to compensate the Northrop Grumman shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss. and $176 million to rebuild the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport, Miss. Coburn said, “In emergency legislation, we have a lot of things that really are not emergencies and we, as a body, ought to look at that and use self-discipline.” Coburn’s efforts were voted down.

• H.R.5197, introduced by Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), would amend title 49, U.S. Code to extend the FAA’s war-risk insurance program for airlines. Mica pointed out that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, commercial insurers cancelled the airlines’ war-risk insurance. Ten days later, Congress granted the FAA authority to issue war-risk insurance to some 70 U.S. airlines, and that has been generating roughly $150 million in annual premium payments to the U.S. Treasury.

• S.2666, the “Aviation Fuel Tax Simplification Act,” introduced by Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) would temporarily suspend the revised tax treatment of kerosene for use in aviation under the “Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act–A Legacy for Users.” Signed into law last summer, that act contained a provision whereby all aviation fuel taxes would be initially collected at the rate of highway diesel–24.4 cents per gallon–while the aviation jet fuel tax stayed at 21.9 cents per gallon.

The law stipulated that the “ultimate registered vendor” or final seller of the fuel could apply for the difference in the amount of taxes paid and the amount owed. Taxes so collected would be deposited in the Highway Trust Fund and the 2.5 cents per gallon would be transferred to the Aviation Trust Fund only if the vendor applied for the refund.