Congressional Observer: September 2001

 - May 9, 2008, 7:14 AM

Early last month President Bush departed for a month-long hiatus in Texas and just about the same time Congress opted to take its August recess. So, the dog days of August descended on a more or less deserted legislative Washington.

Bush called the retreat to his Texas ranch a “working vacation,” but by the time he comes back to the White House around Labor Day, the President can clock in all or part of 54 days at the ranch since January–and that comes to about a quarter of his term in office to date. Add to that four days in Kennebunkport, Maine, and 38 days, full or partial, at Camp David, Md., to bring the time at vacation spots to about 42 percent.

Nevertheless, the President has had some success in pushing his proposals through Congress (education, energy, patient’s rights and so on). Polls show Bush’s job approval rating in the 53 to 57 percent bracket, but one poll found that two-thirds of Americans believe big business has too much influence on his administration.

•Spending bills and appropriations for various government agencies proceeded more smoothly than in the past. Before the recess, the House passed nine of the 13 spending bills for fiscal 2002, which begins October 1, while the Senate approved just five. Final passage of all bills will come after House and Senate conference committees debate differences (none had met before the August recess) and the President approves.

However, there are more than 13,000 “earmarked” pork projects proposed in pending appropriations bills, and these are generally items not requested by departments or agencies of the government but inserted by legislators for the benefit of their constituents. In spite of concerns about a dwindling budget, the total cost of the pork projects comes close to $280 billion–which amounts to $3,800 this year for every American family of four.

When Congress reconvenes, time will have a factor in what other legislation moves forward. There have been 2,830 bills introduced in the House since January and the Senate logged in 1,393. The House is scheduled to be in session for only 14 days in September and the Senate close to that. How many bills will make it into law? Wait and see.

•The Senate considered S.1178, introduced by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), an original bill making appropriations for the Department of Transportation and related agencies for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2000.

Under the bill, the FAA would receive $13.2 billion, which would include $6.92 billion for operations (the Bush Administration asked for $6.87 billion) with about $5.7 billion coming from the Airport and Airway Trust fund. The general treasury would be tapped for $1.14 billion The Airport Improvement Program is to receive $3.3 billion, Facilities and Equipment $2.91 billion and Research & Development $196 million.

The Senate Appropriations Committee report cited its concerns with FAA inspector staffing, which the Bush Administration froze at 3,229 in spite of recommendations by an internal review team that found that the FAA needed 3,297. Another $12.2 million was provided to increase this workforce. Also added was $3.6 million for aviation certification activities, citing a concern that the Aircraft Certification Office in Seattle was understaffed.

More money was provided to hire 600 more air traffic controllers to comply with the labor agreement that the FAA negotiated with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. The committee continued its endorsement of the contract tower program by providing $70.5 million to maintain the program and another $6 million for expansion of the contract tower cost-sharing program. It also fully funded the FAA’s wide-area augmentation system (WAAS) program, to the tune of $5 million.

The air traffic services subcommittee that came into being last December as a result of AIR-21, which has been charged with oversight of the FAA’s management of the air traffic control system, was appointed last December but did not receive sufficient money to hire a staff. Former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum heads this subcommittee and will now have $862,000 for staffing.

•S.1151, “The Grand Canyon Quiet Technology Implementation Act,” introduced by Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and John Ensign (R-Nev.), would credit air-tour operators at the Grand Canyon National Park for noise-abatement modifications and fleet changes previously adopted and grant those operators relief from new operating restrictions at that park.

•H.R.2746, introduced by Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), would establish the Airport Noise Curfew Commission and define its functions and duties.