Washington Report: March 2008

 - February 28, 2008, 6:02 AM

• Following the recess for the year-end holiday season, the 110th Congress apparently was in no rush to resume work on leftover legislation and to prepare for new business. The House of Representatives returned on January 15, while the Senate indulged in “pro forma” or “hello and goodbye” sessions until January 22. The Senate’s delay was the result of Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) desire to tend to his state’s first-ever caucuses for presidential candidates.

• In late January House Democrats held their annual retreat, looked ahead and emerged with a scaled-down legislative plan to pass a sufficient number of bills to show they have been productive enough to warrant another two years in the majority. On tap would be passing a budget, an energy bill, providing money in the Highway Trust Fund for road projects and, later in the year, passing appropriations bills.

Republicans also had a retreat and gave thought to restoring their reputation for fiscal responsibility and declaring a moratorium on Republican Congressional earmarks.

Washington political analysts opined that not much new will take place in this session due to preoccupation with the November elections, partisan gridlock and a lame-duck president. In addition, 28 Republican and six Democrat Congressmen have already announced that they will not run for re-election, a fact that might shape their attitude toward pending legislation.

• President Bush sent Congress a $3.1 trillion budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2009 that would incur deficits of more than $400 billion this year and next. The budget would freeze most domestic spending and make cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. Those and other cuts might allow Bush to reach his goal of balancing the budget by 2012. Lawmakers have already been picking apart various budget proposals, and observers predicted much debate ahead.

• Earmarked or “pork” amendments to appropriations bills captured the attention of President Bush and spending watchdog groups. To support the position about earmarks he expressed in his State of the Union address, President Bush issued
Executive Order: Protecting American Taxpayers From Government Spending on Wasteful Earmarks. A part of the Order text reads, “It is necessary that the number and cost of earmarks be reduced, that their origin and purposes be transparent, and that they be included in the text of the bills voted upon by the Congress and presented to the President.” The Order will apply to appropriations laws and other legislation enacted after Jan. 29, 2008, the date it was enacted.

Consequently, the earmarked amendments to the Omnibus appropriations bill recently enacted will still go forward. The Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) expressed its disappointment with Bush’s Executive Order and called on him to issue one that would cover the 11,000 pork barrel projects–worth $14 billion–in the 2008 appropriations bill. These include $213,000 for olive fruit fly research in France; $1.9 million for the Center for Grape Genetics in Geneva, N.Y.; $2.5 million for fish waste research in Alaska; and $250,000 for awning renovations in Roanoke, Va.

• The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (Crew) filed a complaint with federal prosecutors alleging that Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) sponsored a $2 million earmark for Voyager Expanded Learning four days after that firm helped donate $30,000 in campaign contributions. Crew also noted that Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) last year obtained a $6 million earmark for Aurora Flight Sciences, Columbus, Miss., for the Orion High-altitude Long Endurance UAV project that would meet urgent national requirements for persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance beyond line-of-sight communications. According to Crew, the executives of this company were among Wicker’s top campaign contributors.

- H.R.5099, introduced by Rep. Sam Groves (D-Mo.), would amend Title 49, U. S. Code, and establish additional goals for airport master plans. The bill would encourage airport sponsors and state and local officials to develop plans that take into account customer convenience and access to airport facilities and threats of a terrorist attack, including the need to continually monitor and adjust plans to address new terrorist threats.