Congressional Observer: January 2006

 - September 28, 2006, 4:25 AM

•Congress took a legislative break from November 18 to December 12 but, before leaving, both houses passed H.R.3058, the FY2006 Transportation, Treasury and Housing appropriations bill that provides funding for those agencies through September. The bill authorizes $13.8 billion for the FAA, $276 million more than the agency’s budget for FY2005, and $1.1 billion more than President Bush requested.

The bill includes $8.2 billion for FAA operations, $3.55 billion for the Airport Improvement Program, $110 million for Essential Air Service, $12 million to hire and train 595 new air traffic controllers, $12 million more than the President requested to hire and train safety inspectors in the office of aircraft certification and flight standards, and $1 million for the National Air Transportation Association Safety First Management System for air charter operations.

Also included was up to $17 million for general aviation businesses in the Washington, D.C. area that were affected by security restrictions and facility shutdowns since 9/11. Most of the funding will be derived from the Airport and Airway Trust Fund.

A continuing resolution was passed to allow other government agencies whose appropriations bills were not passed to continue operating at the FY2005 budget level until December 17. Congress has passed nine of the dozen FY2006 spending bills.

Legislators expected that the remaining appropriations bills, among which were $445 billion for defense spending and $142.5 billion for health, education and labor programs, would be passed before the end of this session. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate appropriations labor, health and human services and education subcommittee, angered colleagues by chopping $1 billion worth of pork projects from the committee’s spending bill. Traditionally, that appropriations bill is one of the most pork-packed annual spending bills.

•In late November the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee passed S.65, which would amend the age-60 restriction for airline pilots. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) introduced the bill last January. The bill would direct the DOT to adopt the standards proposed by the International Civil Aviation Organization that allow airline pilots to fly as pilot-in-command up to age 65, provided the flights are with copilots under the age of 59.

The bill would also allow pilots grounded by the current age-60 rule to seek re-employment at an airline up to age 65 and would direct the NTSB to report on any problems or to submit modifications on aviation safety. The House of Representatives has not acted on H.R.65, a similar bill introduced by Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.).

•The $24 billion worth of the 6,300 earmarked or pork projects that were loaded into the $286 billion Highway Bill signed into law last summer caused fretting and concern among legislators who were considering deficit-reduction bills.

The two infamous Alaskan bridges, one dubbed “The Bridge to Nowhere” earmarked by Sen. Ted Stevens, and the other, “Don Young’s Way” included by Rep. Don Young (both Republicans from Alaska), projected to cost some $400 million, may not be built after all. Legislators decided to strip those projects from the highway bill, but that will not save any money because the state of Alaska will receive the $400 million for such projects as it deems necessary.

Stevens, who vowed to quit the Senate if his bridge was not funded, was still on the job at press time.

•H.R.4419, the “Abolishing Aviation Barriers Act of 2005,” introduced by Rep. Jon Porter (R-Nev.), would repeal the perimeter rule for Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and terminate federal funds that may be obligated or expended, after the enactment of this bill, to enforce the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey rule banning flights beyond 1,500 miles (or any other flight distance-related restriction) from arrival or departure at New York La Guardia Airport.

• Looking into a crystal ball for what might happen this year produces cloudy images relating to terminating U.S. involvement in Iraq and how to balance government income and government spending. There is little indication that aviation matters will enjoy any priority.