Congressional Observer: January 2004

 - January 31, 2007, 8:55 AM

• H.R.2115, the “Flight 100-Century of Aviation Revitalization Act” introduced in May by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), was combined with S.824, the “Aviation Investment and Revitalization Act,” introduced in April by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and approved by unanimous consent in the Senate in late November. The bill reauthorizes the Federal Aviation Administration for four years and provides $59 billion in funding.

The bill did not have an easy flight through Congress. Although both Houses passed their individual bills (94 to 0 in the Senate and 418-8 in the House), differences in the bills necessitated a review by a joint conference committee for resolution. The conference committee report was issued in July and the House approved the agreement by the small margin of 211 to 207 after stripping a provision that would have allowed the FAA to privatize staff at 69 small and midsize towers.

That action came even though Kenneth Mead, the Department of Transportation inspector general, had written to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and said, in part, “Since 1998, we have conducted audits of various aspects of the Contract Tower Program and have found consistently that the program works well. We found that contract towers provide cost-effective services that are comparable to the quality and safety of FAA-operated towers and that the program also provides services at towers that the FAA would otherwise not have staffed because they were too expensive to operate. In 2002, we estimated that contracting out the VFR towers still operated by the FAA would save the agency about $780,000 per tower each year. That translates into about $55 million in annual savings if all 71 towers were contracted out.”

In the interim, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association launched a costly lobbying program against privatization and found an ally in Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who vowed to initiate a filibuster and stall passage of the bill based on his concerns for safety and that private contractors would sacrifice safety for profit.
FAA Administrator Marion Blakey addressed the privatization issue in a letter to the Senate that stated, “During this fiscal year we have no plans to initiate competitive outsourcing studies nor will we displace FAA employees by entering into binding contracts to convert to private entities any existing FAA position directly related to our air traffic control system.” That left open the question as to what would happen after the fiscal year ends in September.

Given that assurance, Sen. Lautenberg abandoned his filibuster plan but said, “…the fight is not over and I will continue to push for permanent prohibition. We are going to fight this again and we will be fighting it until it goes away for good.”

Before taking a vote on the bill, there was considerable pro and con and give and take by various senators who ultimately concluded that the conference report on H.R.2115 should have the Senate’s blessing with unanimous consent.

• Meanwhile, Congress was attempting to close out its business on a high note but wound up with a mixed bag of results. Congress did approve Medicare legislation that was estimated to cost $400 billion over the next 10 years and a $350 billion “economic stimulus” package that contained a reduction in income-tax rates, a cut in levies for capital gains and dividend income and business investment incentives. Also approved were two spending bills–$79 billion in April and $87 billion in the fall–for military and reconstruction operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. A $31 billion energy bill that contained the most thorough rewrite of energy programs in more than 10 years passed the House but did not make it through the Senate.

A major problem remained in that seven of 13 appropriations bills for various government agencies that have been operating on last year’s budget since October 1 were not approved. As it did in previous years, Congress will likely lump all appropriations bills into one large omnibus bill with a total estimated cost of $330 billion or more. Washington pundits regard omnibus bills as a Congressional feeding ground for “earmarked” or “pork” amendments tacked on to the different appropriations bills. Last year the “earmarked” amendments amounted to some $22 billion. It is likely that this omnibus bill will not see the light of day until some time this month.

• The controversial amendment added to the Department of Defense appropriations last year for the lease of 100 Boeing 767s to be used as tankers by the U.S. Air Force and subsequently changed by Congress to a lease of 20 and a later buy of 80 continues to make waves. This lease/buy plan might have contributed in some way to the departures of Boeing CEO Phil Condit last month and of two other senior executives in late November. Early last month, deputy secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz sent a letter to members of Congress and called for a “pause in the execution of the contracts” to allow the DOD inspector general to determine whether the actions of two of the departed Boeing executives besmirched the deal. All of this could result in another round of congressional hearings on the subject.

• S.1960, introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), would exempt airports in economically depressed communities from matching grant obligations under the Airport Improvement Program.

• Box score at the end of November: 3,645 bills were introduced in the House and 1,979 in the Senate.