Congressional Observer: November 2007

 - November 6, 2007, 3:19 AM

• By a vote of 404 to 14, the House of Representatives passed a stopgap funding bill that would keep government agencies running until November 16. Included were the various aviation-related taxes that fund FAA operations. The new budget year started October 1 and, at that time, none of the 12 appropriations bills funding government agencies had been signed into law. Before leaving for the August recess, the House passed all 12 bills, but the Senate was guilty of foot dragging. Four bills that were passed by both chambers were in House-Senate conference committees to resolve differences between the versions.

Last year Democrats ripped the Republicans for their performance in not completing Congressional budget work on time. As Yogi Berra said, “It’s déjà vu all over again” inasmuch as Democrats had not done any better this year than Republicans did last year. President Bush said that he would not approve a last-minute omnibus bill that lumped all agency appropriations together. He also made it clear that he would veto appropriations bills that contained billions of dollars in pork barrel projects, that he would not go along with expansion of government programs if costs were not offset elsewhere in the budget and that he would not accept increasing taxes to pay for congressional extravagance.

• In spite of their announced good intentions and new rules regarding earmarked (pork) amendments, lawmakers still managed to put them in the hopper. For example, the 2008 defense appropriations bill contained about 936 earmarks that totaled $5.1 billion. According to watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, that is $1.6 billion less than last year’s earmarks but falls short of Democrats’ claim that they would significantly reduce earmarks when they were in control.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) led the parade with $189 million in pork amendments and shared $24.7 million in requests with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). Among Stevens’ projects were $44.2 million for access to the Joint Tanana training complex; $10 million for “utilidors,” an above-ground, insulated network of pipes and cables at Eielson AFB; and $2 million for hibernation genomics.

Close behind were Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), with $183 million in projects that included $27.5 million for the Hawaii federal healthcare network and $24 million for the Maui space surveillance system. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) followed, with $166 million in pork that included $60 million for the Allegheny Ballistics Laboratory in Mineral County.

• At the request of Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), the Government Accountability Office (GAO) checked into federal agencies’ travel records from July 1, 2005, to June 30, 2006. The GAO analysis determined that the government spent $230 million on some 53,000 first- and business-class tickets and that in two-thirds of the cases the higher-priced tickets were not properly authorized or justified. The agency said that government travelers should have flown coach instead. Travel guidelines allow premium-class travel when individuals have a physician-certified physical disability, when such travel is required for security purposes, when the mission is urgent and coach travel is not available or when the destination is outside the U.S. with flight time of more than 14 hours and no rest stops en route.

The GAO’s report showed that an Agriculture Department official flew business class from Washington to Zurich at a cost of $7,500 when a coach ticket would have cost the government $900. In another case, 21 people from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative flew business class from Washington to attend an international trade meeting in Hong Kong. The cost for that was about $100,000 when coach, albeit less comfortable, would have cost $32,000. 

Coleman introduced a bill that would require the executive branch to report first- and business-class travel to Congress every year.

• Among the aviation-related bills introduced were:

• S.2059, introduced by Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), would amend the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 to clarify the eligibility requirements with regard to airline flight crews.

• H.R.3540, introduced by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), would amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to extend the funding and expenditure authority of the Airport and Airway Trust Fund.

• H.R.3633, introduced by Rep. Donald Manzullo (R-Ill.),
would provide for export controls of certain items relating
to civil aircraft