Congressional Observer: December 2005

 - October 31, 2006, 4:45 AM

• In view of the enormous funds allocated for hurricane relief ($62 billion to date with more to come) and a mounting budget deficit, President Bush and legislators in both houses of Congress have been pushing programs that would reduce federal spending. Senate Republicans offered a plan that would cut $16 billion in discretionary non-defense, non-homeland security spending; impose a two-year delay in the full prescription drug benefit, raising Medicare costs for seniors who make more than $80,000 or $160,000 per couple; and defer cost-of-living pay boosts for all federal civilian employees.

Included in the Republican plan was a proposal to eliminate a number of the 6,000-plus earmarked or “pork” projects, costing $25 billion, that were stuffed into the recently passed H.R.3, the “Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Act,” more commonly referred to as the “Highway Bill.” That infamous $233 million “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska that would replace a seven-minute ferry ride between Ketchikan (population 8,900) and its airport located on Gravina Island (population 50) has been receiving nationwide publicity. The bridge is one of many Alaskan projects that were earmarked into the Highway Bill by Sen. Ted Stevens, (R-Alaska), Senate President Pro Tempore and also chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) offered up an amendment that would have banned building the bridge so as to send a sizeable amount of the money south to rebuild the Interstate 10 bridge across Lake Pontchartrain that was damaged when Katrina beat up on Louisiana. Stevens then announced that he would resign from the Senate if the bridge funding was dropped. Coburn’s amendment was defeated by a vote of 85-12.

While on the subject of pork, it should be noted that Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) proposed a 440-page bill asking for $250 billion in federal reconstruction funds that would be over and above the $62 billion already provided. The bill includes such items as $35 million for the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board; $8 million for direct financial assistance to alligator farmers; $12 million for the restoration of wildlife management areas; and $25.5 million to complete the Sugarcane Research Laboratory.

In the view of government-spending watchdogs in and out of Congress, earmarked projects that give legislators bragging rights about what they do for their constituents are usually indicative of the wasteful spending of federal funds.

• The federal deficit for FY2005 was $318.62 billion, the third largest ever, but down from last year’s record $412.85 billion. Federal spending increased by 7.9 percent from last year to $2.47 trillion, while tax receipts bumped up 14.6 percent to $2.15 trillion. Budget analysts are warning that spending for hurricane relief and the Iraq war in the next fiscal year will likely push the federal deficit into the $400 billion range.

• H.R.4174, the “Transport Aircraft Fuel Tank Safety Act of 2005,” introduced by Rep. Timothy Bishop (D-N.Y.), would require the FAA to issue a final regulation to mitigate center wing fuel tank flammability in transport category aircraft. (An NPRM was published on November 18.)

• Upon motion by Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the House of Representatives passed S.1796, which authorizes the Secretary of Transportation to make emergency airport improvement grants-in-aid for repairs and costs related to damage from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

• Senators voted to forego their 1.9-percent pay raise of $3,100 to make their salaries $165,200, in a symbolic gesture to compensate for rising budget expenditures and the expenses for hurricane rebuilding. Unless legislators vote to block them, Congressional pay raises are automatically implemented every year. Both the Senate and House must agree to a salary freeze, but at press time the House had not taken that step.

• Acting on nominations by President Bush, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation approved Mark Rosenker and Kathryn Higgins to serve as members of the NTSB. Rosenker has been a member of the NTSB since 2003 and serving as acting chairman. Kathryn Higgins will be new to the NTSB, having served for more than 30 years in both the executive and legislative branches of the government. During the Clinton administration she was Secretary to the Cabinet and Deputy Secretary of Labor. If approved by the full Senate, Rosenker and Higgins will serve through 2011. Ellen Engleman Connors has been nominated to serve another term as the NTSB chairman but the committee did not consider her nomination.