Congressional Observer: July 2008

 - July 9, 2008, 7:09 AM

Congress resumed business early last month after an 11-day hiatus and took note of the to-do list President Bush outlined in his weekly radio address. That list included a war funding bill, intelligence legislation, veterans’ benefits and a free-trade pact. However, the Senate first debated the Climate Security Act sponsored by Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John Warner (R-Va.). The bill outlined a cap-and-trade approach and would have required greenhouse-gas emissions to be cut 18 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and nearly 70 percent by mid-century. Opponents of the bill stalled its progress through the Senate by offering non-germane amendments and having the 492-page bill read aloud by Senate clerks, a task that took nine hours. After five days, Democrats failed to obtain the 60 votes necessary to bring the bill to the floor for a vote, so it stalled and crashed. Democrat and Republican leaders blamed each other for the debacle. Proponents of global warming legislation will have to go back to the drawing board to develop a new bill for the third time in five years.

By a vote of 214-210, the House passed a $3.1 trillion budget plan, a nonbinding measure that does not go to the President but sets guidelines for future action by Congress that would have a bearing on taxes, benefit programs and the annual appropriations bills. The Senate had already passed on the measure. The House plan postpones major budget decisions and leaves the budget on autopilot until after the presidential election to allow the new president to write a budget proposal. The fiscal year for government agency appropriations ends September 30 and President Bush has vowed to veto any bill that exceeds his spending requests. That raises the question of whether this Congress will pass new appropriations bills by October 1 or wait until after the elections and the new president takes office in January. Those appropriations bills have been the nesting place for many earmark or pork amendments, and lawmakers might be content to bide their time.  

The House also approved, by a vote of 318-106, a five-year $290 billion farm bill. The bill received 35 more votes than is needed to override a presidential veto. Government spending watchdog groups have assailed the bill for providing subsidies for millionaire farmers and for being loaded with pork amendments. Club for Growth president Pat Toomey said, “Congress should be embarrassed when such a large majority votes to throw taxpayer dollars at millionaire farmers and increased subsidy payments at a time of record high crop prices and
give special tax breaks to horse racers.”

As of early last month, 6,205 bills had been introduced in the House and 3,101 in the Senate. The bill flow continues in spite of the fact that this Congress has little time left in this session to enact new laws.

Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) has been on the hot seat for a $23 million earmark that was tacked onto the 2009 intelligence appropriations bill for the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) located in his district. The NDIC was due to be shut down in the president’s budget proposal for FY08 after an Office of Management and Budget review concluded that it duplicated other federal activities. In 2007, Murtha attacked Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) on the House floor when Rogers wanted to delete the earmark but later apologized to Rogers for threatening to block any earmark requests by Rogers. No matter now, for in a closed-door session the House Intelligence Committee by a vote of 17-4 eliminated Murtha’s earmark from the bill. Murtha declined to comment on the action.

Aviation bills in the hopper were:

• S.3090, introduced by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), would provide for adequate oversight and inspection by the FAA of facilities outside the U.S. that perform maintenance work on U.S. commercial aircraft. Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) signed on as cosponsors.

• H.R.6173, the “Travel Related Industries Protection Act of 2008,” introduced by Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), would amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to
suspend temporarily the excise tax on aviation fuel used in commercial aviation.