Keeping with custom, Congress deserted Washington for the dog days of August with some small sense of accomplishment. Of the 1,570 bills submitted in the Senate and the 2,987 in the House before the recess, Congress tallied but 66 bills and resolutions that were signed into law. The Republican Study Committee reported that of those 66, 35 contained little or no significant costs to taxpayers. Checking in with the biggest spending tab was the 2003 Omnibus Appropriations Bill, which totaled a nifty $397 billion.
Of the Senate bills, only a dozen were of significance to aviation while the House logged in about twice that amount. All were referred to various committees for action but only two, S.824 and H.R.2115, which deal with reauthorizing the FAA, moved forward.
Washington pundits predict that the coming sessions of Congress will concentrate on legislation that will have an effect on voter preferences for the 2004 elections. The big mid-August power blackout in the Northeast stirred renewed interest in stalled energy legislation. Prescription drug bills have run into snarls, but proponents are optimistic. Welfare overhaul is pending Senate action. Legislators might be sobered by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report that the federal government will record a deficit of $480 billion next year and acquire some $1.4 trillion in new debt in the next decade. Added to that is the cost of the U.S. involvement in Iraq, which has been estimated at $1 billion a month, with little or no end in sight. In fact, President Bush last month asked for $87 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
• A new fiscal year starts October 1 and Congress will seek to buck a historical trend with timely passage of appropriations bills for fiscal year 2004 to fund the 13 federal agencies. The trend has been to pass a series of “continuing resolutions” to keep the agencies functioning at previous funding levels while Congress debates who should get how much. That is what happened last year, and the result was the $397 Omnibus Appropriations Bill, larded with some $23 billion in pork projects.
By August, the House had approved 11 appropriations bills, with only spending bills for the District of Columbia and for the Transportation and Treasury departments to consider in September. However, the Senate still had nine bills to go, and a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said “the month of September will be appropriations month.”
• Among the funding bills on the table when Congress returned in September were S.824, the Aviation Investment and Revitalization Act, introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and H.R.2115, the Flight 100-Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act, introduced by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska). These bills would reauthorize the FAA. Both were merged into one bill that worked its way through a conference committee in July to resolve the differences in the Senate and House versions. Hopes for approval before the August recess went down the tube as there was still some apparent disagreement on a few issues, among them the privatization of the ATC system. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) have gone on record as opposing a provision that would allow privatization of 69 general aviation control towers currently staffed by FAA controllers.
There is industry concern that failure or delay in passing this legislation could hold up nearly $60 billion in FAA funding and jeopardize the big bucks needed for airport improvement projects.
• The congressional measure added to the defense spending bill last year that would allow the U.S. Air Force to lease 100 Boeing 767s for use as tankers at a cost of $21.5 billion commanded considerable Senate attention early last month.
First, the CBO issued a report prepared at the request of Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), asserting that leasing would cost $5.7 billion more than purchasing the 767s outright. Said the CBO, “The proposed financing arrangement to acquire the tanker aircraft is significantly more expensive than an outright purchase because of the anticipated interest rates…and other costs that are unique to the leasing options.” The CBO report noted that the leasing arrangement included interest payments and $400 million for insurance, as well as the fact that the lease did not comply with Office of Management and Budget rules.
The Air Force rebutted, “While the Congressional Budget Office report addresses cost issues, it fails to recognize the critical and significant operational and maintenance advantages gained by obtaining a more capable aircraft five years earlier than by purchasing.”
Next, Sen. McCain, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, an outspoken critic of the lease plan, called for a committee hearing even though that committee had no vote on the matter. At about the same time, the Department of Defense inspector general’s office announced that it had initiated an investigation into whether a former Air Force official, now employed by Boeing, had improperly shared a competitor’s (Airbus) proprietary information with Boeing during negotiations. “From the beginning,” stated McCain, “the Air Force appeared not so much to negotiate with Boeing as to advocate for it to the point of appearing to allow the company too much control over not only pricing but also the terms and conditions of the contract.” At the conclusion of this hearing, McCain was ready to concede that the lease plan was a done deal.
Then along came a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. Three of the four committees having jurisdiction over the amendment had already voted approval and the Armed Services Committee was expected to follow suit, but that did not happen. Instead, committee chairman Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to consider a proposal to lease up to 25 Boeing 767s and to buy the balance through the normal procurement process. The committee will not vote on the lease plan until the buy-lease proposal review has been completed. Sen. McCain called the alternative proposal “a concept that I think we ought to pursue.”
There does not appear to be any dispute as to the necessity for modernizing or replacing the existing fleet of KC-135 tankers, whose average age is 40 years and, of those in service, at least one-third are down for maintenance at any given time. Unless Congress can come up with the big bucks it would take to buy 100 Boeing 767s, leasing the aircraft might be a reasonable option.
• Government spending watchdogs are pushing for passage of S.R.173, introduced by Sen. McCain, that would “amend the standing rules of the Senate with respect to new or general legislation and unauthorized appropriations in general appropriations bills and amendments thereto, and new or general legislation, unauthorized appropriations new matter, or nongermane matter in conference reports on appropriations acts and unauthorized appropriations in amendments between the Houses relating to such acts.” In plainer language, under McCain’s proposal, “earmarked” legislation, which is the way legislators slip pork-barrel projects that benefit their home districts or states into an appropriations bill, would need 60 votes to remain in the spending bill.