Congressional Observer: May 2008

 - May 5, 2008, 6:44 AM

• Congress recessed for a couple of weeks at Easter time. “Pro forma” sessions continued in the Senate. To keep President Bush from making recess appointments for a number of government positions, the Senate convenes and adjourns in a matter of minutes, thereby blocking presidential action. On the pending list of presidential nominees are three Federal Reserve governors, four members of the Federal Election Commission, the FAA Administrator, the head of the Internal Revenue Service, the deputy Attorney General, 17 ambassadors and 28 judges who would have lifetime tenure. Senate Democrats appeared to be in no hurry to fill the vacant positions.

• As of April 4, there were 5,713 bills introduced in the House and 2,822 in the Senate. More than 100 bills were introduced to extend the temporary suspension of duty on a variety of imported products. The total also included a number of “rubber stamp” approval bills to name post offices. Time may be running out on the vast majority of the remaining bills. Lawmakers seek to end this session sometime next month so that those up for re-election in November can return to their home districts and do battle for votes. Many are keeping an eye on the presidential nomination process to determine whose coattails they can ride.

• As if to show that it can operate with a degree of speed, the Senate worked up a bill that would provide billions of dollars to offset the slumping home-building industry. The bill includes $4 billion in grants to local governments to allow them to buy and fix up foreclosed homes; a $7,000 tax credit for people who buy new homes or those in foreclosure; and $100 million for housing counselors who can provide more transparency in real-estate closings so that borrowers can better understand the terms.

• Watchdog group the Heritage Foundation analyzed the House Democrats’ federal budget and came up with a host of interesting figures.  Every American household would pay an average of $3,100 more in federal taxes and, overall, that would amount to $1.265 trillion more over five years and $3.911 trillion over 10 years for the government. The proposal increases discretionary spending by 8 percent but does not eliminate a single program. This year the federal government will spend $25,117 per household. Heritage noted that last year the government made at least $55 billion in overpayments that included almost $1 million the Pentagon spent to ship two 19-cent washers from South Carolina to Texas and $239,451 to send an 89-cent washer from South Carolina to Florida. In the last five years, government auditors examined all federal programs and found that 22 percent of them (costing taxpayers $123 billion per year) failed to show any impact on the populations served.

• Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and 14 bipartisan co-sponsors, including all the presidential candidates, offered an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2009 Budget Resolution that would have imposed a one-year moratorium on earmarks. DeMint had stated, “The earmark process allows politicians to fund pet projects based on political power instead of merit. Earmarks are rarely subject to public hearings or oversight and they invite the kind of corruption that has sent lawmakers to jail.” However, the Senate rejected the amendment by a vote of 71-29.

• Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), another government spending watchdog group, reported that the Democrat-led Congress doled out $17.2 billion, a 30-percent increase over last year’s $13.2 billion, for pet projects by stuffing 11,610 projects in Fiscal Year 2008 spending bills, the second-highest total ever and more than triple the number of projects in FY07. Top porkers in the Senate were Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), with $892.2 million; Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), $469.4 million; and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), $464.5 million. All three are members of the Senate Appropriations Committee. As for presidential candidates, Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) ranked No. 13, for $296 million in 281 projects; Barack Obama (D-Ill.) ranked 28th for about $97 million, while John McCain (R-Ariz.) had no earmarks. Democrats were challenging CAGW’s figures, claiming the association inflates the total by including projects that should not be classified under the “pork” label.