Congressional Observer: September 2007

 - August 27, 2007, 10:59 AM

• Pushing hard to wrap up business before they took their customary August break, lawmakers devoted a good deal of time to deciding what to do about the Iraq war and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Democrats touted their legislative victories (wiretapping, ethics rules, raising federal minimum wages and implementing 9/11 commission recommendations) while Republicans questioned their accomplishments, calling the Democratic-majority Congress “a post office Congress,” indicating that it did little more than rename post offices. Before the Senate closed up shop, lawmakers introduced 50 new bills in one day, bringing the year’s total to 1,984. In two days, 114 new bills hit the table in the House, bringing the yearly total so far to 3,469.

• Appropriations for various government agencies were still pending for Fiscal Year 2008, which begins October 1. The House has passed most of its bills, but the Senate has approved only one. President Bush threatened to veto nine of the 12 bills if they exceed the spending outlays proposed in his budget.

• Congress followed through on its promises to reform Congressional ethics and earmarks, as the Senate and House passed legislation addressing those issues. The bill will impose stricter rules on dealings between lobbyists and lawmakers and on efforts to sneak “pork” projects into spending bills. It represents the most sweeping ethics reform since Congress enacted changes after the Watergate scandal. However, pundits point out that the success of ethics legislation will depend on whether Congress comes up with a way to enforce the rules.

Bill provisions require that lawmakers disclose an earmark two days before a vote and certify that their immediate relatives have no direct interest in the project. Senators and candidates for the Senate must pay full charter fare when traveling on private airplanes. House members and candidates cannot accept trips on private airplanes unless the member owns an interest in the airplane.

The bans are aimed at lobbyist-sponsored junkets. Yet to be worked out is what the charter rate for a given aircraft will be and whether a Part 91 aircraft operator can be considered a commercial enterprise if it accepts money for a flight. Lawmakers cannot accept gifts from lobbyists and their clients, and lawmakers convicted of bribery, perjury or similar crimes will lose their retirement benefits.

As for earmarks or “pork,” proposed reforms did not appear to deter some House members when the 2008 military spending bill came up. For example, Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the House Appropriations defense panel, included 48 earmarks that amount to $150.6 million. The largest was $23 million for the National Drug Intelligence Center, a facility that the Bush Administration requested $16 million to close since it duplicated the work of a similar center.

Top-ranking minority member Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) entered 52 pork projects totaling $117.2 million. All in all, the bill contained 1,337 earmarks that will cost some $3.07 billion. Finally, the Water Resources Development Act, which funds the U.S. Corps of Engineers, started out at $14 billion but pork-laden projects ballooned that to $21 billion.

At press time several aviation bills were in the hopper.

- S.1866, introduced by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), would amend Title 49, U.S. Code, to exempt certain local restrictions from review under the airport noise and access restriction review program. The bill pertains to a local restriction limiting the hours of a publicly owned airport maintained by the owner of the airport.

- S.1867, introduced by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), would require the FAA Administrator to conduct a study on the operation of helicopters over Long Island, N.Y.

- S.1934, introduced by Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), would extend the existing provisions regarding the eligibility for essential air service subsidies through Fiscal Year 2012.

- H.R.3259, introduced by Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), would amend the Homeland Security Act of 2002 to authorize the Secretary of Homeland Security to issue rules that designate no-fly zones in the vicinity of certain nuclear power plants.

- H.R.3305, introduced by Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), would provide for the safety of U.S. aviation and the suppression of terrorism. The bill would allow any pilot, copilot or navigator of an aircraft, or any law enforcement personnel specifically detailed for the protection of that aircraft, to carry a firearm.