Congressional Observer: October 2002

 - May 7, 2008, 5:48 AM

Lawmakers escaped the dog days of August in Washington by taking a vacation and returned the first week of September to face a multitude of concerns, though few  involve aviation. Iraq, terrorist activities, national budget proposals and gloomy projections of deficits, the upcoming November elections (in which both parties will be striving to gain or maintain House and Senate majorities) and appropriations to keep government agencies functioning are just a few of the items that will keep both houses of Congress busy.

All members of the House of Representatives are up for election. The Republicans currently hold a small majority and may have a struggle to maintain it. In the Senate the Democrats have enjoyed a one-vote majority, which may be in jeopardy as four Democrat senators have been tagged as “vulnerable” by political observers. They are New Jersey’s Sen. Robert Torricelli (the Senate Ethics Committee sharply rebuked him for accepting expensive gifts from a businessman); Missouri’s Sen. Jean Carnahan (appointed to the Senate a few weeks after her husband was killed in an airplane crash and who has never run for a political office); South Dakota’s Sen. Tim Johnson (barely elected six years ago with 51 percent of the vote and running against Republican John Thune, who won a third House term with 73 percent of the vote); and Minnesota’s Sen. Paul Wellstone (who broke his pledge to serve just two terms and is facing White House-backed former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman).

• The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) announced that a substantial drop in tax receipts will result in a projected $157 billion deficit for the fiscal year that ended last month. This contrasts with the $127 billion surplus in fiscal 2001, a fiscal turnaround of some $284 billion. The CBO is also forecasting that deficits will continue into 2005. Meanwhile, President Bush asked Congress to appropriate $1 billion of the $5.1 billion in emergency spending that he rejected earlier this summer. Of that, $546 million would go toward transportation security.

• The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has come under fire from numerous directions as it attempts to create a new bureaucracy. The basic complaint from aviation interests is that high-level staffing is made up largely of Secret Service personnel who have little or no concept of aviation matters and show no inclination to listen to advice. Directors of 133 U.S. airports have urged senators to delay TSA screening of all passenger baggage for explosives past the December 31 deadline. As part of the legislation to create a Cabinet level Homeland Security Department, the House changed the screening deadline to Dec. 31, 2003. Airport operators complain the TSA plan “involves squeezing both equipment and personnel into already congested airport ticket lobbies” that could create passenger delays exceeding three hours during peak travel times. Congress authorized only $3.85 billion for the TSA, but DOT Secretary Norman Mineta has said the TSA, a part of the DOT, needs $4.4 billion.

• The Bush Administration changed course on its opposition to arming airline pilots by proposing a plan of its own that recommended issuing pilot lock boxes to carry their weapons and addressing certain safety and training programs. That may have prompted the Senate to do something about S.2546, its version of the Arming Pilots Against Terrorism Act introduced by Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), which had been stalled even though the House had passed H.R.4635, which bears the same title. What the Senate did, by a vote of 87 to 6, was to tack its bill as an amendment to the legislation that would create the Homeland Security Department. One objector was Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), who was pacified when the amendment was modified to require that the cockpit door remain closed during flight except for physiological needs and mechanical emergencies. There are some differences in the Senate and House bills that will have to be resolved in conference. The estimated price tag to start the program is $900 million and $250 million annually thereafter, and the TSA claims that money is not provided for in its budget.

• Marion Blakey, former chairman of the NTSB, breezed through the Senate Commerce confirmation hearing to be the FAA Administrator on September 12. However, approval by the full Senate was held up because a few anonymous senators inserted themselves into a labor contract dispute between the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees that came up during the Clinton Administration and had been referred to the Office of Management and Budget for approval by then-FAA Administrator Jane Garvey. The union sued but an administrative law judge recently ruled that the FAA referral was correct.
When the hold was lifted a few days after the Commerce Committee approval, the Senate voted unanimously to approve Blakey’s nomination, and timing was important. With Jane Garvey gone, Monte Belger, who was up for retirement and who had been appointed as Acting Administrator, announced that, come what may, September 15 would be his last day.

• As of September 5, there had been 5,342 bills introduced in the House and 2,912 in the Senate. Predictions are that about 5 percent of those will have been passed into law by the end of this session.