Congressional Observer: January 2007

 - December 18, 2006, 11:17 AM

• Congress took a three-week break on November 16 to allow lawmakers to ponder the results of the election. On December 5 lame-duck lawmakers limped back into session but ran like race horses on the way to the finish line and ended the business of the 109th Congress four days later.

The big final act was the passage of a $50 billion bill that had a multitude of provisions, among which were opening 8.3 million acres of federally owned land in the Gulf of Mexico for the production of oil and natural gas, a five-year extension of various tax breaks for families and businesses and eliminating cuts in payments to doctors for Medicare patients.

• The Senate, by a vote of 95-2, approved Robert Gates to replace beleaguered Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense. Republicans Jim Bunning of Kentucky and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania cast the only two votes in opposition to the appointment.

• Appropriations, totaling some $460 billion, for nine of 11 government agencies did not make the grade. Since 1994 Congress has failed to enact all of the appropriations bills by October 1, the start of a new fiscal year. To keep the agencies functioning, Congress passed another continuing resolution to allow those agencies to spend based on the previous year’s allocations. Appropriations bills have been a longtime feeding ground for earmarked or “pork” amendments. By closing up shop, the 109th Congress staved off some 10,000 earmarked amendments but Washington pundits were saying that Democrats could smell pork cooking that would be ready for eating next year.

• However, not all was quiet as Democrats, now in control of both houses of Congress, vied for coveted committee positions when ousted lawmakers vacated the premises.

Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California made a push for Rep. John Murtha to be the House majority leader but, instead, Democrats voted in favor of Steny Hoyer of Maryland. Washington pundits considered Pelosi’s endorsement of Murtha as a bungled first attempt to lead the Democratic majority. To the consternation of lawmakers, Hoyer promptly announced that come next year the House would work five days a week. Hoyer pointed out that the 109th Congress worked 103 days, seven days fewer than the “Do Nothing Congress” of 1948.

Pelosi then ruffled a few more feathers as she bypassed Rep. Jane Harman of California and Rep. Alcee Hastings of Florida and named Texan Silvestre Reyes chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Other appointments were Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri to chair the Armed Services Committee and Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin to chair the House Appropriations Committee.

Harry Reid of Nevada will be the Senate majority leader, and he too advocated working long hours focusing first on leftover legislation. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, a former prince of pork who relinquished that title to Ted Stevens of Alaska, will chair the Senate Appropriations Committee and will have the assistance of another well known porker, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii. Byrd declared that the 110th Congress would enact all agency appropriation bills before the September 30 deadline.

Republicans restored Trent Lott as Senate minority whip and named Mitch McConnell of Kentucky the Senate minority leader.

• In the past legislative year, aviation legislation did not arouse much interest or fare well. There were a dozen or so aviation bills introduced in the House and Senate and most found committee pigeonholes where they appeared to be stuck fast.

- S.3661, the Wright Amendment Reform Act of 2006, introduced by Sen. Kay Hutchison (R-Texas), became Public Law No: 109-352. The bill amended the International Air Transportation Act of 1979 relating to air transportation to and from Love Field, Dallas, and opened that airport for
additional airline and charter flights.

• As of December 8, there had been 6,419 bills introduced in the House and 4,110 in the Senate. Bills that stalled out and crashed will have to be reintroduced in the 110th Congress, provided there is sufficient interest.