Congressional Observer: October 2006

 - October 10, 2006, 6:03 AM

• When Congress returned from its summer sojourn, lawmakers had 15 workdays scheduled for September. Very few, if any, were on the books for this month, as lawmakers will spend considerable time preparing for the November elections.
Appropriations bills for the 12 government agencies that have to be completed for the new fiscal year by the September 30 deadline topped the legislative priority list. Last year Congress passed every appropriations bill individually, but in 2004, an election year, missed the deadline and rolled nine bills into one $388 billion omnibus measure that ran thousands of pages and allowed little time for lawmaker review. Such measures have been a breeding ground for pork barrel or earmarked amendments, and in 2004 Congress added $27.3 billion in spending for almost 14,000 amendments.

The usual procedure for appropriations bills has been for the House and the Senate to pass their separate versions. A conference committee would then hammer out differences in the bills, and ultimately 12 compromise bills would go to the floor for a vote. This year the House passed 10 of 12 bills before leaving town, but the Senate had passed only the Homeland Security spending bill. Given the limited number of workdays in September, the prospect of an omnibus bill loomed large, and many anticipated that a large number of earmarked amendments would be slipped anonymously into the big bill. Pork gives lawmakers bragging rights about what they have done to serve their constituencies and makes interested lobbyists joyful. In spite of efforts to control earmarking, little of substance has been accomplished as lawmakers have been reluctant to cut pork that leads to voter support.

• S.2590, the “Federal Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006,” introduced by Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), would require the full disclosure of all companies and organizations that receive the $460 billion in federal grants and $340 billion in federal contracts each year.

The Office of Management and Budget would be directed to create a searchable database that would include information regarding each entity that receives federal funds, the amount received, how the money is being used and where the entity is located. Intended to curb pork barrel spending, the bill was supported by the Bush Administration and most of the government spending watchdog agencies.

However, one unnamed senator had put a “secret hold” on the bill. Holds are an unofficial part of Senate parliamentary tradition that allows one senator to anonymously delay action on a bill. Watchdog groups conducted a public campaign and determined the perpetrator to be Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), he of Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere” fame. The Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW) pointed out that since 1999, the Alaska delegation brought home more than $3 billion in federal pork, thanks mostly to Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Stevens. CCAGW said that the state ranked number one in pork per capita since the group began calculating the statistic in 2000, pulling in $489.87 worth of pork per resident in 2006.

• According to a Congressional Budget Office analysis, the Senate immigration bill under consideration would increase government spending by as much as $126 billion over the next 10 years. Nearly 31,000 new federal workers would be needed in the next five years. Building and maintaining 870 miles of fencing and vehicle barriers would cost $3.3 billion. Newly legalized immigrants could claim nearly $50 billion in federal benefits such as the earned income and child tax credits ($24.5 billion); Medicaid ($11.7 billion); Social Security ($5.2 billion); Medicare ($3.7 billion); and food stamps ($2.4 billion).

• With Election Day nearing, Democrats and Republicans have been engaged in finger-pointing about who is responsible for the 109th Congress’s earning the nickname “The Do Nothing Congress.” What is at stake is control of the House and Senate for the next two years, which will certainly affect the remainder of President Bush’s term.

• Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced S.3849, a bill that would require airlines to make flight delay information available to the general public. n