After a 10-day recess in mid-February, Congress returned to tackle a few of the pending major issues that have been subjected to heavy bipartisan views. The House passed its version of a campaign reform bill that sought to define the limitations of “hard” and “soft” money contributions. In the provisions of this bill, large, unregulated soft money donations would be banned by corporations, unions and individuals. Their deliberations brought to mind what an unknown wag once said: “It doesn’t make any difference if you are rich or poor as long as you have money.” That can be easily paraphrased: “It doesn’t make any difference if the money is hard or soft, as long as there is money.” According to watchdog group Public Citizen, more than $15 million went to 527 groups that can accept unlimited donations and did not, until recently, have to disclose the names of donors. Most of that money came from 27 major industries that gave at least $100,000 each.
For some time the Senate has had its own version of a campaign-reform bill on the table. When the bill came to the floor early last month, the Senate Republicans indulged in a filibuster and a vote to end it failed. The net result is that the Senate will have to set that bill aside and consider other legislation while the pros and cons are debated and, one hopes, resolved.
• By a vote of 417-3, the House early last month concluded a long-running debate on a bill relating to economic stimulus that would provide up to 13 weeks of additional unemployment benefits, permit small businesses to write off expenses more rapidly, provide tax incentives for investment in New York City to compensate for September 11 and to allow financial services companies to defer tax payments on overseas profits. The bill went on to the Senate, where, with unusual speed, it was passed by a vote of 85 to 9. From there it sped to President Bush, who promptly signed it into law.
• “Earmarking” legislation, more commonly known as “pork,” continues to draw criticism and concern. The Bush Administration threatened to cancel $1.3 billion earmarked for low-priority programs in the 2002 appropriations bill for labor, health and education and use the savings to assist in helping low-income students cover tuition in the Pell Grant program. Among the earmarks was $80,000 in “community development” money for the Ashland, Wis., sheriff’s department for the purchase of an Ice Angel Windsled to be used during the winter for rescue activities; and $1 million to pay for the installation of “Intelligent Transportation Systems Technology” in Moscow, Idaho, which can count only 25,000 residents. In this, a congressional election year, earmarked programs become important for legislators seeking reelection as they can point with pride to the pork they produced for the local populace.
• Senate majority leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) continued to take pot shots at President Bush’s war budget. During television interviews, Daschle suggested the need for more administration consultation with Congress before the legislature could appropriate more money for the war on terrorism. Said Daschle, “We’re going to be committing $4.7 trillion to defense in the next 10 years if the president has his way, $600 billion more than was originally anticipated. Before we commit these resources, we’d better question the issues involved around that funding.”
• The Aviation and Transportation Security Act included a requirement that, effective this past February 18, “each air carrier and foreign air carrier operating a passenger flight in foreign air transportation to the United States shall provide to the Commissioner of Customs by electronic transmission a passenger and crew manifest.” This provision includes Part 135 on-demand air charter operators, and the National Air Transportation Association was particularly outraged by the lack of guidance and discretion provided to those operators by the U.S. Customs Service. While airlines were allowed to use the Advance Passenger Information System (APIS) for electronic transmission, charter operators were not given the same access or any mechanism for transmitting manifests when the rule became effective. Some on-demand charter operators were tabbed with $10,000 fines for failing to transmit manifests electronically before crossing the U.S. border. Meanwhile NBAA completed an online APIS submission service to allow Part 135 operators to comply with the new requirements as an interim solution to the problem.
• The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure by a voice vote approved H.R.3347, the General Aviation Industry Reparations Act of 2001, which had been introduced by aviation subcommittee chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) late last year. Mica’s bill was amended to provide general aviation businesses that sustained losses from September 11 up to $2.5 billion in direct compensation and up to $3 billion of the $10 billion set aside for airline loan guarantees. General aviation workers who lost their jobs would be compensated, and employers that apply for a loan guarantee would have to provide health-care benefits to their laid-off employees. The bill must be considered by the whole House, and there has been no timetable set for that action. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) introduced a similar bill (S.2007) in the Senate. Funding may be a difficult hurdle to jump, for the $2.5 billion in direct compensation is not in the federal budget, with the consequence that those funds must be “appropriated” in the next round of federal funding bills or as an amendment to an omnibus budget bill.
• Rep. Mica dispatched a letter to President Bush seeking the administration’s support in opening Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to general aviation traffic. Mica pointed out that public-use aircraft were permitted use of the airport and that general aviation traffic should be granted similar privileges.
• Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) introduced S.1980, a bill to require a training program for all airline personnel responsible for checking passenger identification.
• Countdown on bills submitted as of March 7 was 3,920 in the House and 2,001 in the Senate.