Congressional Observer: March 2006

 - December 7, 2007, 5:51 AM

• One of the annual Washington rituals calls for the President to send Congress an administration budget proposal for the next fiscal year. President Bush followed through with a FY2007 plan asking for $27.7 trillion. The proposed budget would increase defense spending by 7 percent and cut some $15 billion from 141 programs in nine of 15 Cabinet agencies. New tax credits for health care would be created and the tax cuts Bush pushed through Congress in his first term would be made permanent. Total spending for FY2007 would increase a modest 2.3 percent. The federal deficit is expected to reach $423 billion.

The budget for the Department of Transportation would be $65.6 billion, and most of the money would come out of the highway and aviation trust funds. The Airport Improvement Program (AIP) would be funded at $2.75 billion, a reduction of the $3.5 billion Congress approved for last year and the $3.7 billion authorized for FY2006.

Essential air service funding would drop from $100 million last year to $50 million. The proposal includes $13.7 billion for the FAA to build runways and hire safety inspectors and air traffic controllers. While the administration did not suggest implementation of aviation user fees, it did not close the door for future consideration.

The President can propose budgets but cannot enact legislation, leaving it up to the lawmakers to debate, approve or change the administration’s plan and then pass the laws for appropriations. Last year Bush proposed cutting 154 small programs for a saving of $15.8 billion, but Congress took action on just 89 of the proposals. The net saving was $6.5 billion, or about three-tenths of one percent of total spending. With a mid-term election year in the offing, partisan politics may play a part in what comes out of Capitol Hill.

• House Republicans elected Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) House Majority Leader to succeed Rep. Tom Delay (R-Texas), who had to step down to face alleged political misadventures in Texas. The majority leader sets the floor schedule and decides what programs his party wants to address.

Two hot issues–lobbying reform and earmarking–required Boehner’s immediate attention. The backlash from lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s scandalous activities spurred lawmakers into introducing a host of bills that would change the rules about what lawmakers can accept from lobbyists and in what manner. The primary concerns appear to be travel, meals and lodging. There are existing laws relating to how legislators should account for travel on business aircraft, particularly during election years. Boehner has publicly stated that he opposes efforts to ban privately funded travel for members, so bills that contain drastic changes might stagnate.

Boehner, however, has also publicly stated that he is opposed to earmarking. Boehner was one of only eight legislators to vote against the bloated $284 billion highway appropriations bill, which contained some 6,000 pork projects valued at $24 billion. He is reputed never to have added an earmarked project to any appropriations bill.

Earmarking has grown from 4,155 projects valued at $29 billion in 1994 to 14,211 worth $53 billion 10 years later. Last year’s heavily porked highway appropriations bill created public outrage, and many demanded changes in the earmarking process.

President Bush has asked for a “line-item veto” authority, an option not granted to previous presidents, which would allow him to delete individual projects without killing an entire bill. Congress no doubt will not allow that to happen for it would cede too much power to the president. The legislature, however, might be more disposed to making it harder for earmarked projects to be enacted by requiring them to be voted on instead of passed around in exchange for votes on other pieces of legislation.

• After tortuous and grinding Senate confirmation hearings, the Senate approved Judge Samuel Alito Jr. for a seat on the Supreme Court.