Congressional Observer: January 2008

 - December 28, 2007, 7:59 AM

•  Congress enjoyed a recess for the Thanksgiving holiday period, but not all members of the Senate availed themselves of the break. The Constitution gives a President authority to make appointments to top federal positions without Senate approval if that chamber is adjourned for more than three days without reconvening on the fourth. Those so appointed may serve through the current and next congressional sessions, which in this case would be January 2009.

To prevent such appointments, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) set up “pro forma” sessions, ensuring that a senator showed up at least every fourth day. In the first such session, Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) was introduced as the Senate president pro tempore; he terminated the session 22 seconds later. Bush’s recess appointment list included Robert Sturgell as the FAA Administrator, Ed Schafer as Secretary for Agriculture and James Peake as Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

•  In the three weeks before Congress took off for Christmas holidays, a full plate of lawmaking faced them. Appropriations for all but two of the 12 federal agencies were still up in the air at press time. President Bush did sign off on a $459 billion Defense appropriations bill that contained some $7.9 billion in earmarks, the first to be passed by Congress and signed into law. However, he vetoed the $606 billion appropriations bill that combined spending for the Labor, Education and Health and Human Services departments. Bush said, “The bill is 44 days late, nearly $10 billion over budget and is filled with more than 2,200 earmarks.” Earmarks included funding for a prison museum, a sailing school taught aboard a catamaran and a program to teach Portuguese as a second language. The House failed to override Bush’s veto, so that bill goes back to the drawing board. At a news conference following Bush’s veto, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) threatened to withhold money Bush requested for funding the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

The Senate has yet to vote on five appropriations bills. Of the six that made it through the House and Senate, just two–the vetoed Labor, Education and Health and Human Services as well as Military/Veterans bills–made it through conference committees to resolve differences between House and Senate versions.

• Earmark or “pork” amendments continued to incite the ire of watchdog groups. The Taxpayers for Common Sense noted that Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee, and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the ranking minority member on the committee, had a “brotherly” relationship that resulted in larding the 2008 defense appropriations bill. Inouye added some $203.6 million, while Stevens chalked up $194 million. Stevens, who is being investigated by the FBI, was reported to have received $10,000 from Inouye’s political action committee. Normally, majority members receive some 60 percent of the earmarks and the minority 40 percent, but the relationship between Inouye and Stevens split earmarks down the middle.

u Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) introduced the “American Infrastructure Investment and Improvement Act of 2007,” which covers aviation as well as highway and rail items. Among the numerous aviation items were:

• the creation of the Air Traffic Control System Modernization Account in the Airport and Airway Trust Fund into which the Secretary of the Treasury would annually transfer an amount equal to $400 million that would be available to the FAA Administrator for expenditures relating to the modernization of the ATC system.

• a definition of fractional aircraft ownership. A $58 tax would be imposed on each departure of an aircraft that is part of such a program.

• H.R.4177, the “Airport Security Enhancement Act of 2007,” introduced by Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), would amend Title 49, U.S. Code, to authorize the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security (Transportation Security Administration) to designate federal special security zones at airports. The zones include ramps, aircraft, baggage handling and loading areas. Access would be limited to an individual who requires access for employment purposes and who has obtained a badge from
the Assistant Secretary authorizing access to the area.