Congressional Observer: May 2002

 - May 19, 2008, 7:52 AM

Congress took its own spring break, leaving March 21 to 23 and returning the second week of last month. By March 23 the box score on bills submitted was 2,073 in the Senate and 4,081 in the House.

Before the break, the campaign-finance reform bill, pushed by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), was passed and subsequently signed into law by President Bush without much fanfare. There was so little fanfare that Bush did not invite McCain to the signing ceremony, choosing instead to have an aide telephone the senator with the news.  

The bill bars corporations, unions and individuals from giving unlimited, unregulated contributions, better known as “soft money,” to national political parties. “Hard money” contribution limitations for individuals were raised to $2,000 for House, Senate and Presidential candidates and $25,000 for political parties. And corporations, unions and nonprofit organizations are now prohibited from funding broadcast “issue ads” that refer to a federal candidate and run within 30 days of a primary election and 60 days of a general election.

Not all legislators were charmed by the provisions of the bill. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) promptly filed suit against the Federal Election Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, claiming that the law will “radically alter, in a fundamental and unconstitutional fashion, the ways that citizens, corporations, labor unions, trade associations, office holders, candidates, advocacy groups, tax-exempt organizations and national, state and local political party committees are permitted to participate in our nation’s democratic process.” And the National Rifle Association filed a complaint against the FEC and the Justice Department challenging the right to issue ads within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election.

Most Washington political pundits are of the opinion that changes in rules on how money flows do not change the fact that in this environment money will continue to flow, for that is the way the political economy works.

• Next up for debate in both houses is what to do with President Bush’s February budget proposal. Military and homeland-security spending have priority, followed by providing funding for Medicare reform that includes a prescription-drug benefit. The Democrat-controlled Senate may take one view on who gets how much, while the Republican-controlled House may take another.

• Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) made good on his promise and introduced S.2007, the “General Aviation Industry Reparations Act of 2002.” The bill would provide economic relief to general aviation entities that have suffered substantial economic injury as a result of September 11. This is a companion bill to H.R.3347, the “General Aviation Industry Reparations Act of 2001,” sponsored by Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), that has been approved by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure but needs the support of both the House Budget and Appropriations Committee chairmen so that the bill can come to the House floor for a vote.

If enacted, the bills would provide $2.5 billion in grant funding and $3 billion in loan guarantees, in addition to extending war-risk insurance to eligible general aviation entities. Inhofe pointed out that benefits were not open-ended and that compensation would be available only for losses incurred between September 11 and December 31 last year, and those losses would have to be as a direct result of government actions following September 11. Businesses that take advantage of the loan guarantees must demonstrate an ability to pay back the loans, and the government has the right to benefit from profits made as a result of a government-backed loan.

The fact of life with these bills is that general aviation lacks a solid constituency that can launch an attack on its congressional representatives who, by and large, know little about what general aviation is and does. In view of the expected boosts in military and homeland-security spending, finding money for what may be considered as a small element of the economy may present problems.

• S.2039, the “National Aviation Capacity Expansion Act of 2002,” introduced by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), is similar to H.R.3479, which was introduced by Rep. William Lipinski (D-Ill.). The bill deals with airport expansion and improvements in the Chicago area.

• H.R.4016, introduced by Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), would extend the time during which air-carrier liability for third-party damages as a result of a terrorist attack may be limited.

• H.R.4077, introduced by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich), would amend title 49, U.S. Code, to provide an apportionment to a primary airport that falls below 10,000 boardings in a calendar year as a result of the discontinuance of air carrier service at the airport.

• Congressional pork through earmarked projects continues to arouse the concern of a number of watchdog groups. These are projects not specifically authorized but are slipped into other legislation without review or competitive bidding and put into the budget by legislators who want to deliver something edible for their constituents. By one count there have been 8,341 projects with a record total of $20.1 billion in various kinds of pork. To ponder an imponderable, wouldn’t it be wonderful if those concerned with general aviation relief funding found a sponsor who could earmark a bunch of money for that group?