Congressional Observer: March 2002
Congress took most of the month of January off, and when it returned to the business of the nation, the Enron bankruptcy captured its attention. A multitude of congressional committees undertook to explore the whys and wherefores of the collapse. The Democrats sought ties between Enron, President Bush and Vice President Cheney. Many legislators who were the recipients of Enron donations were busily occupied in finding ways to unload those monies while disclaiming any connections to the donor.
Amidst all the Enron activity, there was President Bush’s State of the Union message, the administration’s budget proposals, debates on the need for an economic stimulus package, the budget deficit and how to reduce spending.
President Bush proposed a $2.1 trillion fiscal 2003 budget that contains $58.8 billion for the Department of Transportation, a decline of 3.2 percent. Democrats decry the long-term effects of the total budget as a short-sighted road to long-term deficits that may have to be funded by dipping into the Social Security and Medicare trust funds. Administration budget proposals seldom enjoy easy flying through Congress, and the current proposal will probably be no exception to the rule.
• President Bush’s $89 billion recovery plan was blocked by Sen. Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.), who then proposed a watered-down $69 billion program. Early last month both proposals came up for consideration in the Senate. The Democrats turned down Bush’s plan, and the Republicans returned the favor by rejecting Daschle’s bill. Both sides had more than the 50 votes needed to approve the competing plans, but under Senate rules neither side had the 60 votes necessary to overcome objections.
• Sen. Daschle, the fly in the ointment of the Bush Administration’s proposals, was roundly criticized for his Senate stance and a recent CNN poll showed his favorable/ unfavorable rating at a poor 39 percent/25 percent. Daschle coined a new verb, “to Enron,” while a Washington wag, James Terpening, proposed “to Daschle,” which he defined as “to softly feign support for your opponent while working to obstruct and undermine his plans.” The example given was, “I’m going to Daschle the President’s budget.”
• President Bush signed into law the bill that would give the Small Business Administration authority to make some $4.5 billion available for emergency loans to small businesses (FBOs and general aviation airports included) that have been refused loans through SBA’s economic injury disaster loan program. Under this program, loan applications may be submitted until Jan. 10, 2003, or until the funds are expended.
• ”Earmarking” is the term for a legislator’s pet constituency project. More popularly known as “pork,” these projects are untouchable amendments added for funding without authorization or hearings to a variety of spending bills. The total number of earmarked projects rose from 6,454 in 2000 to 7,803 last year and will probably cost about $20 billion.
For instance, projects tacked on to the $123 billion labor, education and health bill
for this year total $905.8 million, according to Congressional figures. The $59.6 billion transportation bill contains between $3 and $4 billion in earmarked projects, such as $2 million for Seattle’s Odyssey maritime museum; $2 million for downtown revitalization in Somerset, Ky.; $500,000 for a roadside animal detection experiment in Montana; and the airport in Sugar Land, Texas, will benefit from $2.9 million for construction that was earmarked by House Majority Whip Tom Delay (R-Texas).
To come up with the money for those projects legislators will dip into the highway trust fund, and states and local governments are expected to receive 11 percent less than they expected from Washington for roads, bridges and other needs.
That brings up another source for money in the not too distant future–the Airport and Airway Trust Fund. Although revenues to this fund have declined since September 11, there is still a tidy sum on hand and this may tempt legislators.
• Both Congress and the Bush Administration are taking a look at the bonuses granted to federal employees for supposedly outstanding performance. For example, 161 civil service executives at the FAA collected more than $1 million in bonuses, although that agency failed to meet half of its performance goals for the previous budget year.
• H.R.3347, the General Aviation Industry Reparations Act of 2001, introduced by Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, has been plodding its way through various House committees so that it can be brought to the floor for a vote by the full House. The bill would provide up to $2.5 billion in direct compensation and $5 billion in loan guarantees to small aviation businesses that incurred losses following September 11. A Senate companion bill may be in the works and would, perhaps, be introduced by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a long-time friend of general aviation.
• The House passed a concurrent resolution expressing the sense of Congress that the Attorney General should appoint an independent counsel to investigate and report on the granting of pilot’s licenses to foreign nationals by the FAA.