Congressional Observer: April 2006

 - September 22, 2006, 4:36 AM

• Controlling earmarking, or “pork” amendments, and restraining lobbyists’ largesse continued to command the attention of lawmakers, and that led to a spate of committee hearings and bills to reduce public concern about lawmakers’ integrity.

By a vote of 17-0 the Senate Rules Committee approved a measure sponsored by chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.), which was the Senate’s first attempt to tidy up the images left by earmarking and lobbying practices. The Committee action was promptly followed by S.2349, the “Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2006,” introduced by Lott.

The bill stipulates that the Senate will not consider any bill, amendment or conference report, including an appropriations bill, a revenue bill and an authorizing bill, unless it lists all earmarks, identifies members who proposed the earmark and explains the essential governmental purpose for the earmark.

The bill also addresses lobbyists’ generosity. Members would have to list the value of any meals or refreshments and the name of the person who paid for such items on their Web site within 15 days. There are several provisions relating to travel including disclosure of noncommercial air travel. A member, officer or employee of the Senate shall disclose a flight that is not licensed by the FAA to operate for compensation or hire, excluding a flight on an aircraft owned, operated or leased by a governmental entity. A report would have to be filed with the Secretary of the Senate including the date, destination and owner or lessee of the aircraft, the purpose of the trip and the people on the trip, except for any person flying the aircraft. Those requirements would also apply to candidates for federal elective office.

• The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs voted 11 to 5 against a measure drafted by its chairman, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), that would have established an independent office to oversee the enforcement of Congressional ethics and lobbying laws. Opponents said the Senate Select Committee on Ethics did not require any other help.

By a vote of 12-1, however, the committee approved a Collins and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) bill whereby lobbyists would have to file reports quarterly instead of the current twice a year and provide details of trips they arrange for lawmakers. Lieberman said he would try to curtail corporate airplane travel by forcing lawmakers to pay charter fares rather than the current first-class airfare costs for their private airplane trips.

Washington watchdog groups have been vocal about the willingness of lawmakers to forego any of the perks they have come to expect and enjoy.

• Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced S.2265, the “Pork-Barrel Reduction Act,” which would provide greater accountability of taxpayers’ dollars by curtailing Congressional earmarking. McCain pointed out that in 1994 there were 4,126 Congressional earmarks for $23.2 billion added to appropriations bills and that last year there were 15,877 earmarks worth $47.4 billion. McCain’s bill has provisions somewhat similar to Lott’s, S.2349, and consolidation was considered a possibility.

• At press time 2,374 bills had been introduced in the Senate and 4,880 in the House, including those for such mundane items as the naming of a post office or lifting some product import restrictions. With elections coming in November and the number of in-session days a factor, leaders in both houses will likely try to close out business in early October. The few pending aviation bills may not come to pass as campaigning legislators will probably focus on bills that have greater voter appeal.

• 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 of passengers and property to be transported on passenger helicopters operating to or from and flights in such areas.

• Companion bills, both bearing the title “Federal Aviation Administration Fair Labor Management Dispute Resolution Act of 2006,” were introduced in the Senate and House. S.2201 by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and H.R.4755 by Rep. Sue Kelly (R-N.Y.) would amend title 49, U.S. Code, to modify the mediation and implementation requirements of section 40122 regarding changes in the FAA personnel management system. The bill would permit labor disputes at the FAA to be settled through binding arbitration.