Congressional Observer: March 2007

 - March 8, 2007, 12:09 PM

• After the November elections, House Democrats vowed to pass the “Six for ’06” bills (minimum wages, stem cell research, energy and so on) in the first 100 legislative hours of the 110th Congress and, to their credit, they did so in 87 hours. However, when those bills were sent to the Senate, three met resistance, one appeared to be destined for a veto by the President and two were subjected to heavy criticism from outside groups. Senate lawmakers have demonstrated a more leisurely approach to legislation, taking eight days to pass an ethics and earmarks bill.

• Ethics and earmarks rules captured the attention of both houses of Congress, but government watchdogs claim that while the rules look good on paper they lack provisions for robust enforcement. Historically Congress rejects independent oversight and, in keeping with history, the Senate rejected a proposal to create an Office of Public Integrity as an enforcement agency.

• Of concern to lawmakers were the nine of 11 appropriations bills that the 109th Congress failed to pass before that session closed. By a vote of 286 to 140, the House passed a continuing resolution that will provide $463.5 billion so that those neglected agencies can continue operating for Fiscal Year 2007. Most of those agencies will remain at Fiscal Year 2006 funding levels. Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, respectively, had previously declared that they would eliminate earmarked or “pork” amendments in appropriations legislation.

However, House Republicans claimed that the bill contains some $500 million in earmarks while Democrats argued that those spending provisions, which include almost $50 million for rain forests in Iowa and $50 million for the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, includes money for projects that have already been allotted millions of dollars in federal funds.

The Senate was expected to vote on and probably pass the bill by February 15.

• By a vote of 431 to 0, the House passed legislation that lawmakers convicted of crimes such as bribery, fraud and perjury would be denied their congressional pensions. The bill is not retroactive and would not affect the benefits of legislators who have previously been jailed for misconduct. For example, former Rep. James Traficant Jr. (D-Ohio), who is still serving a prison sentence for corruption, would continue to receive an annual pension of $40,000 and former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.), serving a sentence for conspiracy to commit bribery, qualifies for an annual pension of $36,000.

• House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) caused a minor brouhaha by asking for use of a government jet that can fly her and, on occasion, other members of the congressional delegation, family members and her staff, nonstop from Washington to California. Former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) was given use of an Air Force C-21 (Learjet 35) to travel to and from his Illinois district for security reasons after 9/11. Currently, the 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews AFB in Maryland has Gulfstreams that can make the nonstop flights, but those VIP aircraft are in high demand by government officials on government business. An unnamed defense source said that Pelosi wanted an aircraft that could carry an entourage, such as the
C-32 (757) used by Vice President Cheney. Late word has it that Pelosi will be offered an aircraft similar to that used by Hastert.

• A number of aviation-related bills were in the hopper:

– S.435, introduced by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (R-N.M.), would amend title 49, U.S. Code to preserve the essential air program. The bill would repeal a provision in the 2003 FAA reauthorization bill that would require communities to pay to continue to participate in the program.

– H.R.461, the “Backcountry Landing Strip Access Act,” introduced by Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R-Mont.), would ensure general aviation aircraft access to federal land and to the airspace over it.

– H.R.500, introduced by Rep. Nathan Deal (D-Ga.), is a bill to provide that pay for members of Congress be reduced following any fiscal year in which there is a federal deficit.

– H.R.587, the “Flight 587 Act,” introduced by Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), would have the FAA require that the manufacturer of aircraft list in the limitations section of each flight manual any information that might affect safe operations.