Congressional Observer: April 2003

 - January 28, 2008, 6:20 AM

There was good news and bad news concerning appropriations for those 11 of 13 government agencies that have been impatiently waiting and enduring the agony of eight continuing resolutions that allowed them to operate with Fiscal Year 2002-level funding.

The good news was that Congress finally signed off on a 3,000-page FY2003 Omnibus Appropriations Act on February 14, which lumped funding for those 11 agencies into the one bill. The total cost amounted to $397.4 billion for FY2003, which began last October 1 and will end September 30.

The new law gives the FAA $13.6 billion for FY2003, which includes $7.07 billion for FAA operations; $3.40 billion for the Airport Improvement Program, $148 million for research, engineering and development; and $2.98 billion for FAA facilities and equipment. In addition, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), had a provision added that effectively prohibits operations of banner-towing businesses over or around sporting events for the next year.

The bad news was that Congress gave pork chops a bad name by larding the various agency appropriations with “earmarked” bills, more commonly known as “pork,” that favor an individual legislator’s constituency. Earmarked bills are rarely, if ever, challenged for fear of retaliatory action by other lawmakers. Even though federal deficits were expected to top $300 billion, the legislators repeated their annual ritual of allocating millions of dollars on programs that may have nothing to do with the purpose of a given agency. Last year’s pork crop had an estimated cost of some $22 billion, and this year’s total may top that amount

• Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has been raising Cain (forgive the pun, please) for many years about what he terms as “necessary” earmarks, took to the floor of the Senate and zeroed in on a long laundry list of bills that included, among others, $10 million for the Alaskan Seafood Marketing Program; $5 million for McGruff the Crime Dog; $1.2 million for High Street Revitalization in Lawrenceburg, Ind.; $1 million for a DNA bear sampling study in Montana; $600,000 for tri-state joint peanut research in Alabama; $2 million for the Biomass Gasification Facility in Birmingham, Ala.; and $700,000 for the Midwest poultry consortium in Iowa.

McCain also took to task a provision in the conference report that incorporated a bill passed by the House last year expanding the class of ATC towers eligible for federal money to those that were built beginning in 1996. Another provision would allow airports to give Airport Improvement Program (AIP) money back to the FAA so the agency could hire staff to speed up environmental reviews of airport projects. Said McCain, “The AIP is supposed to be devoted to the infrastructure needs of our nation’s airports, yet the conference report takes tens of millions of dollars out of AIP to pay for the FAA’s costs of administering the EAS program and the Small Community Air Service Pilot Development program.”

On the other hand, a military benefits bill that was to give tax breaks to military personnel, including reservists called to active duty, and was working its way through the House Ways and Means Committee was abruptly pulled when parochial tax breaks that were running up a total of $500 million were added. Among those was elimination of a 30-percent tax that foreigners pay on winnings from gambling on horse races in the U.S. And Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) offered a bill that would rescind the earmarks in the omnibus bill and transfer the money to a fund for defense and homeland security

• Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) introduced S.236 to require background checks of alien flight-school applicants without regard
to the maximum certified weight of the aircraft for which they seek training and to require a report on the effectiveness of the requirement. A similar bill was approved by the Senate last fall.

The National Air Transportation Association (NATA) strongly opposes this legislation because it removes the 12,500-pound threshold and effectively requires all flight-training providers to notify the Department of Justice of their intent to train a foreign national on any aircraft of any size. In NATA’s opinion, imposing new requirements on the flight-training industry is not the appropriate response to security concerns about foreign nationals and these issues are better addressed by immigration controls that apply to foreign nationals seeking admission to the U.S., regardless of the field of study.

And, as an aside, the Citizens Against Government Waste named Nelson as the “Porker of the Month” for inserting an amendment to the omnibus bill that would transfer the anthrax-contaminated American Media Building in Boca Raton, Fla., to the federal government’s General Services Administration for costs that could go as high as $19 million.

• S.515, the Arming Cargo Pilots Against Terrorism Act, introduced by Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), would allow for the arming of pilots of cargo aircraft. Bunning pointed out that cargo aircraft do not have air marshals, trained flight attendants or reinforced cockpit doors, and that the cargo areas of airports are not as secure as passenger areas.

• H.R.1063, introduced by Rep. James Gibbons (R-Nev.), would limit the age restrictions imposed by the FAA Administrator for the issuance or renewal of certain airman certificates.

• H.R.1084, introduced by Rep. Edward Schrock (R-Va.), would provide liability protection to nonprofit volunteer pilot organizations flying for public benefit and to the pilots and staff of such organizations.

• H.R.1103, introduced by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), would improve aircraft cargo security.

• Box score–as of March 5 there were 544 bills introduced in the Senate and 1,108 in the House, and this was in just a little over a month of congressional business.    o