Congressional Observer: February 2007

 - January 25, 2007, 4:20 AM

The 110th Congress opened for business on January 4, with the Democrats in control of the Senate and the House of Representatives. After the obligatory congratulatory oratory to honor newly elected legislators, Democrats began the process of showing that they can break the previous legislative deadlock by having both parties involved in solving the country’s problems.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the first woman to be Speaker of the House, proposed an ambitious 100-hour legislative program that included changing ethics rules, raising the minimum wage, restoring fiscal responsibility, allowing more stem cell research and reducing interest rates on student loans.

House ethics rules were the first targets. Banned would be gifts and meals from lobbyists, travel planned or paid for by lobbyists or organizations that employ them, and travel on corporate jets. There will be a requirement for pre-approval by the ethics committee for travel paid for by outside groups to ensure that trips are connected to official duties and are immediately disclosed to the public. Added was a requirement for annual ethics training. There are still a few loopholes in that short trips of perhaps a day or two would be permitted, as would unrestricted travel provided by institutions of higher education and nonprofit foundations. The new House rules could take some eight weeks or longer to go into effect while clarification and interpretation of issues are resolved.

The Senate, however, has proposals pending that would ban gifts and meals from lobbyists but would not ban travel on corporate jets and set no travel limitations.

Earmarks, those “pork” amendments added to appropriations legislation, also commanded the attention of both houses. During the 109th Congress, the House passed all of the 11 agency funding bills for Fiscal Year 2007 and sent them to the Senate, which approved only two bills. The remainder passed on to the 110th Congress for action. Continuing resolutions would keep those agencies operating at Fiscal Year 2006 funding levels with some increases to avoid laying off federal employees and funds for some politically sensitive programs such as medical treatment for veterans.

Agency appropriations bills have long been the feeding ground for porkers, and there were an estimated 10,000 earmarks costing approximately $17 billion in the unfinished legislation. Both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have declared a moratorium on earmarks until budget reform legislation is passed. The new House ethics rule contains provisions that earmarks must be fully disclosed (names named, certification that the earmarkers do not financially benefit from the earmark, and so on) before members vote on them.

The House also voted to set disclosure rules for import tariff suspensions that are similar to earmarking rules. More than 800 tariff suspension bills were introduced in the 109th Congress, and lawmakers rolled 520 of those into one must-pass bill that was approved in the final hours of that session. Lost revenue due to tariff suspensions was estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Government spending watchdogs cautiously applauded lawmakers’ action on legislative transparency but remained skeptical about how long it would take lawmakers to circumvent imposed restrictions on projects that would be of benefit to their constituents.

The Senate had a banner day on January 5 when 193 bills, many of them left over from the 109th Congress, were introduced. Among them were:

  • S.44, sponsored by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), would
  • require disclosure and payment of noncommercial air travel in the Senate.|

  • S.65, sponsored by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), would modify the age-60 standard for certain pilots.
  • S.75, sponsored by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), would require the FAA to finalize the proposed rule relating to the reduction of fuel tank flammability exposure.
  • S.191, sponsored by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), would provide relief for all air carriers with pension plans that are not frozen pension plans. n