Congressional Observer: February 2008

 - February 8, 2008, 10:38 AM

• The House of Representatives of the 110th Congress adjourned in mid-December. However, to keep President Bush from making recess appointments, the Senate conducted “pro forma” sessions that lasted only minutes. By the time Congress adjourned, there had been 2,531 bills introduced in the Senate and 4,930 in the House. According to the Library of Congress, the 110th Congress passed 155 bills. Improving automobile efficiency standards, raising the minimum wage and strengthening ethics legislation were among the more noteworthy accomplishments. More than one-third of the bills renamed post offices and other buildings and addressed past legislative errors and gaps.

• As anticipated, Congress failed to pass individual bills for 11 of the 12 government agencies that had been forced to operate at the previous fiscal year’s funding because their appropriations bills had not made it through the legislative process. In a rush to complete funding before it adjourned, Congress passed a $555 billion “omnibus” spending bill that lumped all agency funding into one bill. Only the $459 billion defense appropriations bill escaped the omnibus legislation.

The omnibus bill and defense appropriations bill contained 11,331 earmarked or “pork” amendments that will cost taxpayers some $15.3 billion. While President Bush signed the bill and praised Congress for not requiring any tax increases and providing short-term funding for U.S. troops without imposing arbitrary timelines for withdrawal, he criticized lawmakers for loading the bills with earmark amendments. Bush has asked the Office of Management and Budget to draft actions he could take to cancel the earmarks.

• Earmarks are for projects that were neither requested by the administration nor recommended or evaluated by any of the appropriations committees. According to a preliminary review by government spending watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense, the top earmarkers in the Senate were Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), $773.6 million; Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), $501.9 million; and Robert Byrd (D-W.Va), $429 million.

Stevens, who achieved notoriety for earmarking funds for a “Bridge to Nowhere” that subsequently was not built, secured some $20 million for an “expeditionary craft that will connect Anchorage with the wind-blown rural peninsula of Matamuska-Susitna Borough.”

In the House, top earmarkers were John Murtha (D-Pa.), $161.9 million; C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.), $161.1 million; and Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), $136.8 million.

Among the more curious earmarks were $2.5 million to fight grasshoppers and Mormon crickets in Nevada; $3.7 million to combat termites in New Orleans; $700,000 for a bike trail in Minnesota; $1 million for a river walk in Massachusetts; $4 million for a Beverly Hills, Calif. veteran’s park; $8.8 million for the Rural Domestic Preparedness Consortium at Eastern Kentucky University; $2.4 million for renovations in the Haddad Riverfront Park in Charleston, W.Va.; and $10.4 million to West Virginia-based Pro-Logic Company, which is allegedly under federal investigation.

For the first time, House lawmakers were required to sign their names on their earmarks, identify the beneficiaries and locations and certify that they or their immediate families have no financial stake in the spending. However, the Senate toyed with the language of the rules and limited disclosure to the name of the author of the earmark.

• Aviation bills introduced were:

- S.2493, the “Fair and Competitive Air Transportation Service in New York-New Jersey Region Act,” introduced by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), and H.R.4913, introduced by Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.). These companion bills state, “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Secretary of Transportation, or any other federal official, may not take any action that will limit commercial air traffic from one airport operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that does not limit commercial air traffic from all airports operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, without the consent of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.”

- S.2505, introduced by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), would allow employees of a passenger airline who receive payments in a bankruptcy proceeding to roll such payments into an individual retirement plan.