Congressional Observer: March 2003

 - January 4, 2008, 6:05 AM

In his State of the Union address, President Bush proposed cutting income tax and ending the double taxation of corporate dividends, both actions that would reduce government income. He then went on to propose initiatives with heavy price tags–$400 billion for a health-care plan that provides prescription drugs, $1.2 billion for automotive research, $1 billion for faith-based initiative, for example–which could give Congress a severe case of heartburn as it tries to enact legislation in the face of mounting deficits. The Congressional Budget Office has projected deficits of between $165 billion and $175 billion for 2003, and those figures may rise considerably should the situation with Iraq take a turn for the worse.

• The 107th Congress failed to address fiscal-year 2003 appropriations for 11 of 13 government agencies last October. That inaction led to a series of continuing resolutions to allow those bodies to continue functioning at 2002 funding levels. The supposed plan would make those appropriations a priority matter for the 108th Congress and preserve the $385.9 billion cap that President Bush set for non-defense discretionary spending. The poet Robert Burns made a point about the best laid plans of mice and men many years ago, and so it has been with Congress on this matter.

Washington pundits predicted, and rightly so, that all of the appropriations would be lumped together in one omnibus bill, and that this would be a grand vehicle for those wonderful and unassailable “earmarked” amendments, more commonly referred to as “pork,” that would benefit a legislator’s constituency. The Republican-controlled Senate had at it in late January. Democrats offered up a couple of hundred amendments and the Republicans, of course, retaliated by cutting most of those in favor of amendments of their own. Having done that, the Senate passed the omnibus bill in late January and passed it on to the House, where a conference committee was to have a go at resolving differences.

House Republicans have indicated that the bill is flawed and that they will take their time. One leadership aide was quoted as saying, “This is going to be a tough conference, as tough as [any in] the past. It’s a highly unusual bill with eleven bills wrapped together. We have a lot of concerns, not just on the spending, but also on some of the authorizations.”

• Both Houses of Congress are expected to give consideration to FAA appropriations beyond 2003. The Aviation and Investment Reform Act for the 21st Century, commonly referred to as “AIR-21,” authorized programs until October 2003, the end of the fiscal year. With budget deficits climbing, money for aviation projects may be tough to find.

While the House was expected to hold hearings in the coming months, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), now chairman of the Senate aviation subcommittee, was off to a head start by inviting various aviation industry leaders–Ed Bolen of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) and Jim Coyne of the National Air Transportation Association (NATA), along with representatives from airports, airlines, labor and security experts–to come in for discussions about their agendas and concerns for the coming year. General aviation groups will be especially watchful for efforts to institute user fees, which seem to be of everlasting interest to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Lott has indicated that he and McCain have agreed on most aviation-related issues and that McCain, as the Senate Commerce Committee chairman, would be involved.

• Rumors have been flying that DOT Secretary Norman Mineta, now 71, could resign at any time because of painful back ailments, but insiders have suggested that there may be more to his actions than that. Time will tell.

• H.R.525, introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas), would authorize the President to posthumously award a gold medal on behalf of Congress to the seven members of the crew of Space Shuttle Columbia in recognition of their outstanding and enduring contributions to the nation.

• H.R.580, the Commercial Airline Missile Defense Act, introduced by Rep. Steven Israel (D-N.Y.), would direct the Secretary of Transportation to issue regulations requiring airline jets to be equipped with missile defense systems. Israel expects the government to fund this program fully.

• H.R.586, the Aeronautics Research and Development Revitalization Act of 2003, introduced by Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), would enable the U.S. to maintain its leadership in aeronautics and aviation by instituting an initiative to develop technologies aimed at lowering aircraft noise, emissions and fuel consumption, and to reinvigorate basic and applied research in aeronautics and aviation.

• H.R.592, the National Aviation Capacity Expansion Act of 2003, introduced by Rep. William Lipinski (D-Ill.), would expand aviation capacity. The bill is similar to S.83, introduced by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.). Both bills point out that a Dec. 5, 2001 agreement between the governor of Illinois and the mayor of Chicago would allow the city to go forward with a proposed capacity-enhancement project for Chicago O’Hare Airport that involves redesign of the airport’s runway configuration, and that a federal mandate is required to protect the plan from derailment in future state administrations.