Congressional Observer: July 2007

 - July 5, 2007, 11:56 AM

• Congressional debates on war funding consumed much of lawmakers’ time and much national media attention. The House passed the $504 billion National Defense Authorization Act by a vote of 397-27. The bill included $141.8 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for Fiscal Year 2008. It now moves to the Senate.

• Ethics and earmarked amendments (pork) continued to be a matter of concern. The House passed two measures that toughened lobbying rules. The bills required that lobbyists and political action committees reveal the names of campaign donors and identify donations made to charities run by lawmakers. They would also allow a judge to double the criminal sentence for public officials convicted of bribery, fraud or extortion. The Senate passed its lobbying measure in January, and a conference committee will have to resolve differences before a final bill can be enacted.

Early last month, a federal grand jury indicted Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) on 16 counts that included bribery, wire fraud, money laundering, obstructing justice, racketeering and violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. He is the first lawmaker to be indicted under that act. Federal prosecutors have demanded that Jefferson return $568,168 plus some $6 million in shares he accrued during his alleged crime spree. An investor who cooperated with the FBI gave Jefferson $100,000 in marked bills of which $90,000 was separated into $10,000 increments, wrapped in foil and hidden inside various frozen-food containers that the FBI found in a freezer in Jefferson’s home. His lawyer said his client was innocent and would fight the indictment to clear his name. Jefferson could face up to 235 years in jail if convicted.

On another track, Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) disclosed that the FBI has asked him to preserve records as part of an investigation into Alaskan political corruption that allegedly involved his son and one of the elder Stevens’s financial backers who oversaw renovations on Stevens’s residence that cost more than $100,000.

• One of the unwritten rules about earmarked amendments says, “Thou shalt not contest my amendment lest I vote against yours.” That situation surfaced when Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) challenged an amendment for a $23 million project for a National Drug Intelligence Center added to the Intelligence Authorization Act by Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Committee. During a vote Murtha told Rogers that any earmarks the Michigan representative had entered for a defense appropriations bill are “gone” and that Rogers would not receive any earmarks “now and forever.” The House voted against a resolution reprimanding Murtha. After apologizing to his Democratic colleagues, Murtha apologized to Rogers, who had no immediate comment.

Democrats have vowed to substantially reduce the number of earmarks, to require lawmakers to disclose their requests and to certify that the money requested will have no benefit to the lawmaker.

- The House of Representatives suspended its administrative rules and passed H.R.1615, the “Securing Aircraft Cockpits Against Lasers Act of 2007,” introduced by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.). The bill states, “Whoever knowingly aims the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States, or at the flight path of such an aircraft, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years or both.”

- H.R.2443, the “Federal Aviation Administration Facility Consolidation Moratorium Act of 2007,” introduced by Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), for himself and 14 cosponsors, would amend Title 49, U.S. Code, to suspend the authority of the Administrator of the FAA to eliminate, consolidate, deconsolidate, co-locate, or plan for the consolidation, deconsolidation, inter-facility reorganization, or co-location of any ATC facility and services of the administration. The bill would impose a moratorium on the consolidation or co-location of ATC facilities until January 2009 to ensure the continued safe operations of ATC facilities throughout the national airspace system and to ensure that consolidation and co-location efforts are done in a collaborative and cooperative manner with input from all stakeholders, including members of Congress and air traffic controllers.