Congressional Observer: November 2004

 - December 19, 2007, 11:52 AM

• With many eyes focused on the Presidential election date, both houses of Congress worked diligently on such agenda items as tax cuts, disaster relief, counter-terrorism measures and so on so that they could recess on or about October 8 for legislators to hit the campaign trails. How Congressional elections go will affect Senate and House party majorities and, therefore, who will chair various committees.

The Republicans have held a slight majority but have term limits for committee chairmen. For example, if the Republicans retain their majority, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) would step down as chairman of the Appropriations Committee and probably move laterally to chair the Commerce Committee, while Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) would move up. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) would vacate his chairmanship on the Senate Commerce Committee and take the chair for the Indian Affairs Committee for two years, after which he would become eligible to chair the Armed Services Committee.

If the Democrats obtain the majority, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) would chair the Appropriations Committee and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) would assume the Commerce Committee chairmanship.

• The Senate and House gave approval to the conference report that authorized $422 billion for defense spending next year to include a 3.5-percent pay raise for uniformed personnel, $25 billion for costs in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a new round of military base closings but rejected the controversial U.S. Air Force lease/buy program for Boeing 767 refueling aircraft.

However, the $300 billion, pork-laden highway transportation bill stalled, as did bills authorizing annual appropriations for 11 government agencies. The House version of the highway bill includes some $11 billion in projects that legislators call “high-priority”; government spending watchdog groups more commonly call the projects “pork.” Among the pork projects, there is federal aid for a prairie parkway in Illinois; a mile-long bridge connection from Ketchikan, Alaska, to a largely uninhabited island; replacing Ohio River bridges; a new interchange at Highway 58 and Interstate 70, used by trucks serving a brewery in Golden, Colo.; and for bypasses, transportation corridors, overpasses and bike trails around Savannah, Augusta and Athens, Ga.

For the 11 government agencies without funding legislation, Congress passed one of its continuing resolutions to keep spending at the levels of the last fiscal year until the November 2 elections, after which the lame ducks can have at the process. For the last several years, Congress resorted to a huge omnibus bill to include all agencies and, of course, more opportunities to add those wonderful pork projects.

The highway bill may receive special consideration, but if it fails to go through, a newly elected Congress will have to start over after the first of the year.

• S.2917, introduced by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), would amend the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 to establish a centennial challenge program and establish a National Aeronautics and Space Foundation.

• H.R.5028, the Secure Airshow Act, introduced by Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), would allow a waiver or exemption of certain requirements for restricted airspace if security is not reduced. The bill would amend a law prohibiting airshows within a three-nm radius of a sports complex from one hour before to one hour after the scheduled start of various sporting events.

• H.R.5054, the Hardened Containers for Air Cargo Security Act of 2004, introduced by Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.), would direct the Secretary of Homeland Security to carry out a pilot program to evaluate the use of hardened containers for cargo and baggage on airliners.

• H.R.5109, the Airport Noise Curfew Act of 2004, introduced by Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), would establish an airport noise curfew commission to study and make recommendations to Congress regarding the establishment of curfews on nonmilitary aircraft operations over populated areas of the U.S. during normal sleeping hours.

• H.R.5121, introduced by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), has a number of provisions, including provisions for the use of biometric or other technology and $250 million annually for an explosive detection system installation, to further protect the U.S. aviation system from terrorist attacks. By a voice vote on September 29, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed the bill with a few amendments.

• H.R.5187, introduced by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), would amend the International Air Transportation Competition Act of 1979 to modify restrictions on the provision of air transportation to and from Love Field, Texas, to include Tennessee.

• H.R.5250, introduced by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), would make modifications to the federal flight deck officer program.

• As a final note, Congress gave itself a raise of about $4,000 per year above the current salary of $158,000. This marks the sixth consecutive year that Congress has accepted an automatic pay raise by virtue of not contesting the process.