Congressional Observer: May 2006

 - September 20, 2006, 6:01 AM

— Congress returned from a 10-day break over St. Patrick’s Day but scheduled another recess in mid-April for Easter. Looking ahead, Congress anticipates shutting down shop in October in preparation for the November elections. Time is running out fairly rapidly for the 109th Congress, and it appears that the second session will meet fewer than 130 days. If that happens, this Congress will undoubtedly be likened to the 1948 legislative body that President Truman called the “Do-Nothing Congress.”

At press time there had been more than 5,000 bills introduced in the House and more than 2,500 in the Senate. Those that do not make it through the legislative process will die on the vine.

— Still under debate at press time was the Bush Administration’s proposed $2.8 trillion budget for next year. There was an abortive attempt to re-impose a budget rule that had been in effect from 1991 to 2002 and was known as “pay-go.” Simply stated, that rule would have required any spending increase or tax cut to be offset by a comparable saving to avoid increasing the deficit unless a majority of 60 percent of the lawmakers voted to make an exception.

The Department of Transportation portion of the budget would trim almost $1 billion from the already authorized $3.7 billion Airport Improvement Program. That could necessitate cutting all primary airport grants by half, eliminating non-primary general aviation grants, reducing the FAA’s facilities and equipment budget by $600 million and eliminating the small community air service development program and contract tower cost share program.

— Coming to a head were the numerous House and Senate bills relating to lobbying reform and the perks lawmakers are permitted to accept. The negative publicity surrounding the downfall of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham’s (R-Calif.) resignation from the House and subsequent eight-year prison sentence and the brouhaha created by the activities of Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who also resigned, accented the need for changing the rules of the game.

By a vote of 90 to 8, the Senate passed the bipartisan Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act. A conference committee will have to iron out any differences with the House version. The Senate bill requires that senators or staff members who travel by private aircraft file a disclosure report with the Secretary of the Senate identifying the purpose of the trip and the people on board.

The bill requires advance approval from the ethics committee of any transportation provided to members of Congress by a private party. In addition, the party providing such transportation and lodging would have to certify that the trip was not financed by a registered lobbyist.

The bill also targets the practice of earmarking. It would allow senators to raise a “point of order” against special projects that were not in the original House or Senate version of a bill but added in the House-Senate conference. A “point of order” would remove the earmark (read “pork”) from the bill unless 60 senators voted to retain it.

— Another heated major issue relates to changing the immigration laws. The President, both major political parties and a host of other interested entities have expressed considerable differences of opinion about the issue. At press time there was no telling what legislation would be enacted.

— Aviation bills introduced were:

• S.2395, introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), would amend Title 39, U.S. Code, to require that air carriers accept certain live animals as mail shipments. Grassley’s concern is that air carriers should take shipments of poultry as air mail.

• H.R. 4765, the “High Threat Helicopter Flight Area Act,” introduced by Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), would require the Secretary of Homeland Security to designate high-threat helicopter flight areas and to provide special rules for screening passengers and property to be transported on passenger helicopters operating to and from such areas and for helicopter flights in such areas.

• H.R.4970, the “Backcountry Landing Strip Access Act,” introduced by Rep. C. L. Otter (R-Idaho), would ensure general aviation aircraft access to federal land and to the airspace over federal land.