Congressional Observer: May 2007

 - May 1, 2007, 5:55 AM

• At the end of March, lawmakers took a spring break that ended in mid-April, leaving in a holding pattern approval of House and Senate supplemental emergency spending bills totaling $124 billion for the Iraq war. On their return, they
were to resolve differences in the House and Senate bills, hammering out the details of how money would be authorized and when to withdraw troops from the war zone. Although military leaders have indicated they will run out of money for the war effort sometime between the end of April and June, lawmakers saw little need to rush toward a final bill.

When Democrats took over Congressional majorities, they pledged to eliminate earmarked amendments added to bills funding government agencies. However, the pending House and Senate Iraq war bills contain “pork” amendments. The House added more than $9.9 billion for non-military spending, including provisions for $1 billion for vaccines to stem a major bird-flu epidemic, $750 million for state children’s health insurance programs, $500 million for wildfire suppression, $400 million for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and $100 million for food aid in Africa.

Not to be outdone, the Senate added such items as $24 million for sugar beet producers, $20 million to reimburse Nevada for insect damage, $100 million for security at the presidential nominating conventions and $20 million for the University of Vermont.

Washington pundits regard the pork amendments as a way for lawmakers to scratch one another’s backs so that they can get enough votes to pass these bills. President Bush has publicly stated that he will veto the final bill if it is weighted down with pork and if it arrives with timetables for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Pundits suggested that this situation was a confrontation between the President and Congress about how much money would be authorized for wartime needs. If the President vetoes the bill, it is unlikely that the Democrats could muster sufficient votes to override it. In that case, new emergency spending bills might be required, and that might lead to more legislative foot-dragging.

However, lawmakers are ever cognizant of political factors and might not find it possible to cut off war funding. In March, 96 senators approved language that pledged Congress would never pass legislation “to undermine the safety of the Armed Forces of the U.S. or impact on their ability to complete assigned or future missions.”

• President Bush sent Congress a request for $2.9 trillion covering the budget year that begins October 1. Under Bush, the federal deficit reached a new high of $413 billion in 2004, but that number has been declining. The 2008 budget projects a continuing decline and a possible surplus in 2012, three years after Bush leaves office. Over a period of five years, the Bush budget would cut spending on farm subsidies by $18 billion and save $100 billion by trimming proposed increases in Medicare benefits.

• Meanwhile, legislators kept up the flow of new bills with little apparent regard for timetables. At the end of March, 1,856 bills had been introduced in the House and 1,076 in the Senate; most will not make it through the legislative hopper. Among the aviation bills introduced were:

- Companion bills S.996, introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and H.R.1708, introduced by Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), would amend Title 49, U.S. Code, to expand passenger facility fee eligibility for noise-compatibility projects.

- H.R.1615, the “Securing Aircraft Cockpits Against Lasers Act of 2007,” introduced by Rep. Ric Keller (R-Fla.), would amend Title 18 U.S. Code to provide penalties for aiming laser pointers at airplanes.

- H.R.1686, introduced by Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-N.C.), would require the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that sensitive items such as badges, identification cards, uniforms and protective gear will be made in the U.S.

- H.R.1690, the “Guaranteeing Airport Physical Screening Standards Act,” introduced by Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), would improve airport screening and security by establishing a pilot program at five commercial service airports to physically screen all airport workers with access to secure and sterile areas of the airport.