Cutting President Bush’s proposals to reduce taxes by some $726 billion; concern over ever increasing deficits that are now approaching a record $400 billion for this year; raising the government’s debt limits; and how much to spend to cover the cost of the war in Iraq, as well as other emergencies–these were the primary concerns of elected representatives as they tackled this session of the 108th Congress.
The tax cut will likely bottom out at about $350 billion, roughly half what the administration has been proposing. Legislators cited that eliminating the levy on corporate dividends and reducing income tax in the face of the Iraq war, soaring deficits and homeland security needs warranted drastic reductions in what was proposed.
As to funding wartime spending, the House passed a $77.9 billion bill and the Senate opted for $78.9 billion, as opposed to the administration’s request for $74.7 billion. In recognition of the major airlines’ precarious finances, both bills called for airline aid to the tune of about $3 billion, not necessarily in the form of bailout bucks but to cover some of the costs attributable to legislated security mandates. For example, airlines claim that they lose $250 million a year in complying with federal requirements to provide first-class seats for sky marshals. Both bills contained provisions to force airlines to limit top executives’ compensation for two years and to penalize airlines that do not follow through. Both bills would bolster unemployment compensation for airline employees who have lost their jobs.
• Without dissent, the Senate voted to add an amendment to the war spending bill that would direct the Secretary of Defense to appoint a seven-member panel to investigate the string of rapes and other sexual assaults that are alleged to have taken place at the Air Force Academy in Colorado. The panel members should “have knowledge or expertise in matters relating to sexual assault, rape and the U.S. military academies.” Four of the Academy’s top officers have been replaced.
• The Senate Commerce Committee endorsed a plan to require the Transportation Security Administration to disclose how the CAPPS II electronic airline passenger screening system will work, including its effect on personal privacy. The system would rely heavily on commercial data warehouses containing names, telephone numbers, former addresses, financial details and other information about nearly every American adult. A passenger’s ID would be run through the system to determine whether a passenger can board a flight.
• As an amendment to S.165, the Air Cargo Security Act, the Senate Commerce Committee approved Sen. Bill Nelson’s (D-Fla.) bill that would broaden background-check requirements to include foreign students seeking training regardless of aircraft weight. The National Air Transportation Association has been opposed to Nelson’s bill and has been asking for a face-to-face meeting with the senator to discuss how the provisions will affect training institutions.
• The Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog of reckless government spending, named Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.) its “Porker of the Month.” As an earmarked amendment to the Fiscal Year 2003 Omnibus Appropriations Act, Everett asked for $200,000 for the National Peanut Festival. The Appropriations Committee was so taken with this request that it added a further $2,500 for the new agricultural area on the peanut festival grounds in Dothan, Ala.
• S.516, the Arming Cargo Pilots Against Terrorism Act, introduced by Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), would allow for arming pilots of cargo aircraft. Bunning pointed out that cargo pilots fly the same airplanes with the same or larger fuel loads as the passenger aircraft that were hijacked on 9/11, and that Congress has already authorized the arming of commercial aircraft pilots after they complete a training program.
• S.728, introduced by Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), would reimburse the airline industry for homeland security costs such as fortifying cockpit doors; state, local and airport police for complying with security directives; and for air marshal transportation.
• S.772, introduced by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Neb.), would provide for the apportionment of funds to airports for fiscal year 2004 based on passenger boardings during calendar years 2000 and 2001.
• H.R.1084, the Volunteer Pilot Organization Protection Act, 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 staffs of such organizations.
• H.R.1103, the Air Cargo Security Act introduced by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), would improve air-cargo security by requiring the inspection of cargo carried aboard passenger aircraft and regular inspections of air-cargo shipping facilities.
• H.R.1312, introduced by Rep. William Thomas (R-Calif.), would enhance the security at the East Kern Airport District in Mojave, Calif., home to high-tech aerospace firms and which provides storage to more than 300 mothballed commercial aircraft.
• H.R.1467, introduced by Rep. Michael Collins (R-Ga.), would impose a two-year moratorium on the imposition of passenger and air security fees and reimburse the airline industry for homeland security costs.
• H.R.1553, the Air Transportation Employees Assistance Act, introduced by Rep. Philip English (R-Pa.), would provide for additional temporary extended unemployment compensation for certain qualified airline employees.