Congressional Observer: February 2003

 - January 15, 2008, 6:41 AM

The 108th Congress opened for business the first week in January with a few changes of note. The racial gaffe committed by Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) during the departure ceremonies for Sen. Strom Thurmond forced him out as the Senate Majority Leader. However, Lott will still retain some clout as he will take over as chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee and retain his seats on the Senate Finance, Commerce and Intelligence Committees. Lott used his seniority to claim chairmanship of the Senate aviation subcommittee, displacing Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) who moves over to the Senate Surface Transportation Committee. Lott has shown an interest in air service to small communities and improving the economics of small airports in his state.

Replacing Lott as majority leader will be Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a former heart surgeon and reputedly a good friend of President Bush. According to NBAA, Frist is an “able pilot who has exhibited a clear understanding and appreciation for the association’s views on behalf of the business aviation community.” That is a plus, for the aviation community certainly needs friends in high places.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who is a former congressman, will chair the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Inhofe has a commercial pilot’s license and once flew around the world following the route that Wiley Post took. Environmentalists are less than enthusiastic about Inhofe, a real-estate developer who throughout the Clinton Administration exhibited substantial disdain for the Environmental Protection Agency and once called it a “Gestapo Bureaucracy.” But Inhofe has been an aviation supporter for many years. In the 107th Congress Inhofe introduced S.2007, the General Aviation Industry Reparations Act of 2002, the companion bill to H.R.3347 introduced by Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), that would have, had it been enacted, provided economic relief to general aviation entities that suffered substantial economic injury as a result of 9/11.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a long-time advocate of user fees for general aviation, will once again chair the Senate Science and Transportation Committee. McCain, who has an intense dislike for congressional “pork,” has been quietly digging into a big chunk of pork that would have benefited Boeing. Last year, and without hearings and no requests from the Pentagon, a measure was added to defense spending legislation that would commit the U.S. Air Force to a 10-year lease of 100 Boeing 767s to be converted into tankers at an estimated cost of $1.5 billion, in addition to $1.2 billion for new hangars. At the end of 10 years the 767s would go back to Boeing after costing taxpayers an estimated $30 billion. McCain’s concerns apparently bore fruit for, as reported by The Washington Post, Pentagon comptroller Dov Zakheim and assistant defense secretary of acquisitions Pete Aldridge, meeting as the department’s “leasing panel,” vetoed the deal. Official confirmation by the Pentagon may come later.

• What is on tap for the 108th Congress? In the first two days of the new session the legislature acted with uncharacteristic speed in passing bills to extend unemployment benefits for an additional 13 weeks. President Bush wasted no time in signing the legislation into law.

On tap will be President Bush’s proposals to stimulate the economy through tax cuts, and other measures such as Medicare reform and reducing prescription drug costs. Democrats are expected to offer up their own versions of the administration proposals.

Before it faded into history, the 107th Congress did not approve appropriations for 11 of 13 government agencies, but congressional resolutions allowed those agencies to continue spending at previous-year levels. The House and Senate were expected to pass another continuing resolution to allow funding until the end of last month while they work out the nitty-gritty of who gets how much for what.

Both Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the incoming Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, and House Appropriations chairman Bill Young (R-Fla.) have indicated that they intend to comply with President Bush’s overall discretionary spending limit of $750.5 billion. Congress has already approved spending $359.8 billion on defense and $10 billion for military construction, leaving about $285.15 billion for other agencies. Net result may be that some agencies will have to endure living on less than anticipated.

The White House budget plan would limit domestic spending to $316 billion for this fiscal year, which would be the same as for the last fiscal year.

Aviation interests will have to adopt a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to aviation-related legislation that did not go forward in the 107th Congress. Two items to watch for are the General Aviation Reparations Act of 2002, previously introduced by Sen. Inhofe and Rep. Mica, and the Airline Labor Dispute Resolution Act introduced by Sen. McCain.

• Rep. Mica has taken an interest in how the FAA monitors airline maintenance. He indicated the FAA needs more money to do the job, and he may introduce legislation requiring that more FAA personnel be shifted to that task. “There have been many more people killed due to maintenance defects and lack of inspection and oversight than all the terrorist attacks combined in this country,” he said. “It is important that we have inspections to make certain the airlines are operating safe aircraft and that proper maintenance is adhered to.”

According to an April audit by the DOT Inspector General, the FAA has 3,300 aviation safety inspectors to monitor 139 airlines, 637,000 active pilots, 273,000 mechanics, 7,600 commercial aircraft, 11,000 charter aircraft and 220,000 private airplanes. FAA inspectors analyze data, review paperwork and conduct spot inspections of airlines’ maintenance programs. Mica’s concern is that labor unrest and financial problems are items that prompt looking into increased supervision.

• On opening days of the 108th Congress, the Senate introduced 105 new bills and the House introduced 333, among which were S.82 by Sen. Daniel Inouye (R-Hawaii), which would amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to exempt certain helicopter uses from ticket taxes on transportation by air; S.83 by Sen. Richard Durbin (D.-Ill.), which would expand aviation capacity in the Chicago area. Similar bills were introduced in the House and Senate last year; H.R.115 by Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), which would amend title 49, U.S. Code, to improve airport security by using biometric security badges; and H.R.280 by Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), which would establish the National Aviation Heritage area on Dayton, Ohio.