Congressional Observer March 2004

 - March 28, 2007, 10:16 AM

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in late January announced that the federal deficit is expected to climb to $477 billion this year, up from $375 billion last year. It also estimated that, in the next 10 years, the government will accumulate nearly $2.4 trillion in additional debt. A later report revealed that in the first quarter of this year, the budget deficit totaled $126 billion as government spending outpaced tax receipts. Legislators on both sides of Congress have expressed concern about the budget deficits, but unless they put the brakes on spending there is apparently no way to go but up considering the cost of the war in Iraq, passage of the law that added a prescription drug benefit with predicted initial costs of $400 billion and enacted tax-cut legislation.

•    In early February President Bush proposed a $2.4 trillion budget for fiscal year 2005 that would reduce spending for about half of the government agencies but, at the same time, would boost spending to near-record levels for anti-terrorism and military programs. Bush’s budget would eliminate or cut 128 programs as part of his plan to reduce the budget deficit this year–anywhere from predicted figures of $477 billion by the CBO and $521 billion by the Administration–and by 50 percent within five years.

Bush’s proposed budget would cut funding for the FAA by 13.6 percent, or about $450 million, for modernization of ATC equipment and facilities. However, Congress has already enacted legislation, which President Bush approved, that reauthorized the FAA and provided funding for four years. So the question now arises as to whether funding that has been authorized and approved can be changed or rescinded and how Congress would react to the Administration’s effort in this regard.

•    After a round of partisan wrangling that delayed action temporarily, the good news was that the Senate (by a vote of 65-28) passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act for fiscal year 2004. More commonly known as the Omnibus Bill, it authorized $820 billion in FY 2004 funding for the seven of the 13 government agencies that had been existing on FY 2003 appropriations since October 1. This was the second consecutive year that Congress failed to meet appropriations deadlines in spite of vowing to act before September 30, the end of the government’s fiscal year.

For certain general aviation entities there was bad news by way of an omission in the Consolidated Appropriations Act. H.R.2115, the Vision 100-Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act, contained a provision that would reimburse general aviation entities to the tune of $100 million for security costs incurred and revenue foregone as a result of the restrictions imposed after 9/11 and the military action in Iraq. Included were entities at or within 15 miles of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) and those affected by the various FAA notams. That $100 million appropriation was not included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, leaving those who expected government financial assistance high and dry or, perhaps, in a congressional holding pattern until next year.

The upcoming November elections may change the composition of Congress and the majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Given the minuscule constituency of general aviation, a legislative benefactor with the determination and drive necessary to push such a $100 million spending package through the next session of Congress in what may be an era of budget restrictions may be hard to come by.

•    Included in the aforementioned Consolidated Appropriations Act were some 8,000 “earmarked” amendments, more commonly known as “pork,” that legislators were unable to resist including in this, an election year. Government spending watchdogs were busy enumerating some of the more juicy slices of pork, such as $12.4 million for a nonprofit group to develop technologies for converting wastes from poultry processing plants into an “alternative energy” source; $50 million to help Iowa build a $200 million indoor educational exhibit about the rain forest; $270,000 for potato storage in Madison, Wis.; $1.8 million for the Appalachian fruit laboratory in Kearneysville, W.Va.; $750,000 for Love Inc., a social service facility; $447,000 for a halibut data-collection program and $1 million for the Akutan Ferry planning and design in Alaska; and $400,000 for the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky.

•    H.R.3721, the Essential Air Service Preservation Act of 2004 introduced by Rep. John E. Peterson (R-Pa.), would repeal the essential air service local-participation program.

•    S.2042, introduced by Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.), and H.R.3736, the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2004 introduced by Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.), would provide that pay for members of Congress be reduced following any fiscal year in which there is a federal deficit. Washington pundits greeted the introduction of these bills with controlled hilarity.