Congressional Observer: October 2005

 - October 24, 2006, 10:37 AM

— Following tradition, Congress escaped Washington’s heat and humidity by taking its customary recess in August. Left pending was President Bush’s nomination of John Roberts Jr., to replace Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who retired. That gave the Democrats time to take potshots at the nominee’s previous court records and opinions and the press time to dig into his past as part of the media vetting process. After the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist early last month, President Bush nominated Roberts to succeed Rehnquist as chief justice.

The Senate Judiciary Committee was scheduled to vote on Roberts’s nomination by September 22. Assuming the committee approves Roberts, the nomination will move to the full Senate for an up-or-down vote. The administration’s goal is to have Roberts in place by the time the Supreme Court opens its next session on October 3. That leaves one more vacancy to fill at the Supreme Court, and at press time Washington insiders were speculating that Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez was at the top of the list of potential candidates.

— Then, along came devastating Hurricane Katrina, which hastened Congress back to Washington to provide relief funding to the tune of $10.5 billion as a first step. Congress granted President Bush’s request for another $51.8 billion, bringing the total to $62.3 billion, with more funding likely to come.

Congress was distraught by the emergency response in Katrina’s aftermath. The House and Senate formed a number of committees to probe the government’s disaster planning with the aim of assigning blame, pinning the tail on the various donkeys, reworking the plans and ultimately changing the responsibilities of some of the agencies involved.

— According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the federal budget deficit in Fiscal Year 2004 was $331 billion. That number is some $59 billion less than the March estimate of $412 billion. The CBO credited the drop to a 42-percent increase in corporate tax receipts resulting from soaring profits. That is the good news.

The bad news is that increased government spending for disaster relief and the cost of the Iraq war combined with possible reduced tax revenues could necessitate a major recalculation of the budget deficit.

Before Congress reconvened, the Republicans had an mbitious agenda that included such items as the permanent repeal of the estate tax and substantial cuts to capital gains and dividend taxes. That agenda may slip as Congress wrestles with the prospect of an increased budget deficit.

A flood of bills proposing to cut billions of dollars in spending and, in some cases, to raise revenue was due out of 16 House and Senate committees by September 16. Among the bills are proposals to open Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, with an expected $2.4 billion in royalties and other payments; to eliminate as much as 10 billion from Medicaid; to trim farm price supports by $2.4 billion through 2010; to phase out or reduce the estate tax; and to cut $7 billion from the student aid program. However, noticeably absent from the bills is one suggesting the elimination of pork-barrel amendments.

Also due by the end of last month were appropriations bills for various government agencies. For the past several years Congress has failed to meet the September deadline, which necessitated continuing resolutions to keep the agencies going at previous funding levels.

— Fretting about the high cost of fuel? So far this year, taxpayers had funded 75 domestic and foreign trips in Air Force One, a Boeing 747-200B with, among other security and communications items, an anti-missile system. The Washington Post reported that fuel costs for the 747 have increased from $3,974 per hour in Fiscal Year 2004 to the current $6,029 per hour.

— Among the aviation bills in the hopper at press time were:

• S.1599, the “Abolishing Aviation Barriers Act of 2005,” ntroduced by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), would repeal the perimeter rule for Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and La Guardia International Airport, which limits the options for nonstop air travel between those airports and airports in the western U.S.

• H.R.3643, the “Spaceport Equality Act of 2005,” introduced by Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), would amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to treat spaceports like airports under the exempt-facility bond rules. n