Congressional Observer: June 2008

 - June 9, 2008, 9:30 AM

A resolute President Bush may go down swinging as he finishes his term in office. In a recent Rose Garden speech he outlined his plans to combat skyrocketing energy costs by drilling for oil in Alaska, adding more refineries in the U.S. and building more nuclear plants. Those and other Bush proposals have not fared well as the Democrat-majority Congress appeared to be content to wait until after the November elections to act. Bush’s plan for housing reform has been stalled since last August, a climate-warming initiative has been set aside, a free-trade pact with Colombia was crushed and terrorist-surveillance legislation has not been passed by the House. Bush has demonstrated that he can do without Congress (he released $200 million in emergency food aid) and he reiterated his intention to veto legislation that he felt merited that action. 

Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), a government spending watchdog group, named several lawmakers recipients of its 2008 “Oinker” Awards. Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), who earmarked $211,509 for olive fruit fly research in Paris, earned “The French Kiss Off Award”; House Ways and Means Committee chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) picked up “The Narcissist Award” for earmarking $1.95 million for the Charles Rangel Center for Public Service; “The Taxpayers Get Teed Off Award” went to House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who added $3 million to the Defense Appropriations bill for The First Tee Golf Program.

An earmark that has been receiving much attention is the $10 million Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), former chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, tacked on to the 2005 highway spending bill to extend a portion of I-75 near Fort Myers, Fla. After Congress passed the bill, but before President Bush signed it into law, the earmark was rewritten, allegedly by Young’s staff, so that the money would go toward an I-75 interchange, known as Coconut Road, near Naples, Fla. Curious spending watchdogs have wondered why an Alaskan would earmark a project in Florida. There were reports that Young received some $40,000 in campaign donations from developers who owned 4,000 acres of land next to the proposed interchange. Young has denied that the donations influenced his efforts.

However, the Senate approved a resolution that asked the Justice Department to look into the matter. The Senate action marks the first time that Congress has asked the Justice Department to investigate the legality of legislative earmark.

Young, incidentally, was involved in the now infamous Alaskan “Bridge to Nowhere” earmark, a project that incited the general public’s ire and resulted in that bridge never being built. Meanwhile, local government officials in Florida have stated that they have never asked for the money and have refused to build the interchange. It may be that Coconut Road will lead to nowhere as well.

Aviation bills introduced were:

• S.2941, the “Runway Safety Improvement Act of 2008,” introduced by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), would improve airport runway safety. The bill gives the FAA Administrator six months to develop and submit to Congress a report that contains a strategic runway safety plan that will include goals to improve runway safety and address the increased runway safety risk associated with the expected growth in the volume of air traffic.

• H.R.5880, introduced by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), would require the FAA Administrator to initiate a rulemaking proceeding to establish procedures to limit for a period of one year flight standards inspectors from accepting certain employment positions of responsibility with an air carrier for whom the inspector has conducted inspections or had oversight responsibility in the past.

• H.R.5909, introduced by Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), would amend the Aviation and Transportation Security Act to prohibit advance notice to certain individuals, including security screeners, of covert testing of security procedures for the purpose of enhancing transportation security at airports.

• H.R.5982, introduced by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), would direct the Secretary of Homeland Security, for purposes of transportation security, to conduct a study of how airports can transition to uniform, standards-based and interoperable biometric identifier systems for airport workers with unescorted access to secure or sterile areas of an airport.