Congressional Observer: January 2003

 - January 9, 2008, 9:01 AM

As a result of the Congressional elections in November, the 108th Congress, due to convene early this month, will enjoy a Republican majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. In the Senate, Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), whom many Washington pundits regarded as an obstructionist when it came to moving legislation through that body, gave way as majority to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.). Chairmanship of the various Senate committees will also revert to the Republicans. The “Prince of Pork,” Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), at age 85 becomes the most senior member of Congress when Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) retires this month at the age of 100.

In the House, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) replaces Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas) as the majority leader. Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) will have to deal with Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), successor to Rep. Dick Gephart (D-Mo.) as the leader of the opposition. Pelosi, considered a “fire-breathing” liberal, is in contrast to Gephart, who was depicted as a low-key Midwesterner.

• In the dying days of the lame duck 107th Congress, the Senate passed legislation to create the Department of Homeland Security by a vote of 90-9 and gave President Bush, who promptly signed the bill into law, much of what he wanted regarding worker’s rights and other issues.

The bill creates the 15th Cabinet-level department and, under Secretary Tom Ridge, is to consolidate the activities of 22 government agencies, including the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Customs Service, Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Some Washington observers have regarded this as also creating a new layer of bureaucracy that will, no doubt, require a number of assistant secretaries, deputy secretaries, assistant deputies and personnel with staffs of their own. The establishment of the Department of Transportation with a Cabinet-level Secretary came to mind as an example.

The homeland security bill also mandated that airline pilots who want to carry firearms in the cockpit must begin training by the end of next month. Pilots must pay for their personal training and train on their own time. The Transportation Security Administration–directed by James Loy, who has stated he is opposed to arming pilots–has been charged with the responsibility for developing the training program. A number of details remain to be settled, such as how much initial and follow-up training will be required, and setting up international agreements that would allow pilots to carry guns into foreign countries and airports that ban firearms.

• House and Senate bills under the title of the Aviation Security Improvement Act–which included measures prohibiting the government from issuing waivers to a current airspace restriction, effectively preventing banner-towing operations around major sporting events and expanding existing background-check requirements to virtually every foreign pilot trained by a U.S. flight school–did not make it through the 107th Congress. There were differences between the bills that required conference committee resolution, but Congress adjourned before that action could take place. For consideration by the 108th Congress, new bills will have to be introduced in both houses of Congress.

• Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, had introduced two aviation bills that did not move through the House. One was H.R.3347, the General Aviation Industry Reparations Act of 2001, which would have provided general aviation businesses that sustained losses after September 11 up to $2.5 billion in direct compensation and up to $3 billion of the $10 billion set aside for airline loan guarantees. The other was H.R.5506, the Aviation Industry Stabilization and Reform Act, which called for, among other items, financial help for airlines and reorganizing and integrating the FAA’s advisory councils. Mica has not indicated whether he would introduce both bills in the 108th Congress.

• Following up on House approval to raise congressional salaries for the fourth consecutive year, the Senate approved bumping their salaries to $154,700. Lawmakers’ salaries have risen by $18,000 since the end of 1999. The pay raise also applies to more than 1,000 top-executive branch officials, including the Vice President and members of the congressional leadership. Unaffected was the President’s salary of $400,000 a year. In comparison, the first members of Congress in 1787 were paid $6 a day ($115 in 2002$).

• The 107th Congress did not take action to authorize new funding levels for 11 of 13 government agencies, which under a continuing resolution will remain at last year’s levels until January 11, when the 108th Congress will tackle that problem. Budget analysts predict the Congress will probably not pass any current-year nondefense spending bills until next month at the earliest, which means that programs such as trucking security, bioterrorism, customs operations and emergency response will not see any additional funding until this spring (half way through the fiscal year that began this past October). Money for many government operations will be hard to come by as Republican leaders will attempt to cut $10 billion from this year’s spending bills in keeping with President Bush’s call for spending cuts. Bush, who signed into law two military-related bills totaling $365.5 billion, wants to top off annual appropriations at $750.5 billion, which will allow some $385 billion for nondefense spending.

Money will be extremely tight should the U.S. go to war with Iraq, where the cost of warfare, estimated to be in the billions, will have an effect on legislation calling for big-dollar spending.

• At the close of business for the 107th Congress there had been 3,179 bills introduced in the Senate and 5,767 bills in the House. Analysts estimate that about 3 percent made it into law.