Congressional Observer: November 2005

 - October 18, 2006, 1:44 PM

– Among the after-effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita was a flood of Congressional bills to provide relief to the communities and people devastated by the storms. Cost estimates range up to $300 billion, and legislators showed passing concern about where the money would come from and the effect such funding would have on other government programs. There is already a $333 billion federal deficit forecast for this fiscal year, and relief funds will probably send that figure skyrocketing. Legislators looking at future spending cuts have common targets such as public broadcasting, Amtrak, foreign aid and Medicare’s forthcoming prescription drug program, but there are no definite plans in those directions.

By early last month, Congress had approved $62.5 billion in relief funding, and it would seem prudent for legislators to oppose any project or provision calling for funding that is not directly related to hurricane relief in any supplemental appropriations bills.

Spending watchdogs have suggested that consideration be given to postponing more than a few of the nearly 6,000 earmarked or “pork” projects worth $24 billion that were packed into the recently passed $295 billion highway bill. For Alaska, there was $229 million for a highway called “Don Young’s Way” and $231 million for a bridge from Ketchikan (population 14,500) to Gravina Island (population 50) and dubbed “The Bridge to Nowhere.” In response, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) reportedly said, “They can kiss my ear.”

– For the ninth straight year Congress failed to meet the September 30 deadline to pass legislation that would fund various federal agencies for the next fiscal year. Only two of 1 appropriations bills have made the grade and, to keep other federal programs functioning, Congress had to pass a continuing resolution that would allow funds to be released at the Fiscal Year 2005 rate until November 18.

A check of recent history shows that Congress has not met continuing resolution deadlines and has resorted to lumping all appropriation bills into one large “omnibus” appropriations bill larded with pork amendments. Given what legislators did to the highway bill, critics are wondering if there is any pork left to be served.

– After a little political give and take, the Senate voted to approve John Roberts Jr., President Bush’s choice to replace Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist. However, Harriet Miers–Bush’s White House counsel, former personal attorney and nominee to replace Justice Sandra Day O’Connor– may have tougher going.

Conservative groups have pointed out that Miers has no judicial experience or constitutional background as mitigating against her appointment. Before the nomination, Senate Democrats had been threatening to filibuster by holding unlimited debate and preventing an up-or-down vote if Bush’s nominee did not please them, and Miers might fit that bill.

– Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the House majority leader, resigned that position after a Texas grand jury indicted him on criminal conspiracy charges. House Republicans chose Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) to replace DeLay, a hard-driving, no-nonsense leader who was unabashed about using his legislative and political power as a means to an end. Blunt may bring a different style of leadership to the House, but DeLay will never be far away from a power position even though he is under indictment.

– A number of bills were pending at press time:

• H.R.3736, the “Katrina Volunteer Protection Act of 2005,” introduced by Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), was passed by the House. The bill would extend to volunteers assisting the victims of Hurricane Katrina by providing aid, medical treatment and rescue assistance protection from liability arising from injury and property damage.

• S.1747, the “Give Act of 2005,” introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), would limit liability for volunteers providing goods and services for disaster relief.

• S.1793, introduced by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), would extend certain apportionments to primary airports. The bill lists some 50 airports that would face an entitlement cut in FY2006 from $1 million to $150,000.

• S.1786, introduced by Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), was passed by the Senate. The bill authorizes the Secretary of Transportation to make emergency airport improvement projects grants-in-aid under title 49, U.S. Code, for repairs and costs related to damage from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.