Congressional Observer: September 2008

 - September 5, 2008, 7:34 AM

• When the dog days of August arrived, Congress adjourned for five weeks, leaving a number of major bills hanging fire. Among them were legislation aimed at resolving energy problems. After the House voted to adjourn, a group of feisty Republicans stayed on the floor–no microphones and dimmed lights–and demanded that Democratic leaders come back and take action on energy legislation. Democrats declined. In the Senate, a bipartisan group known as the “group of ten” proposed a possible $84 billion compromise bill, but that did not sell. Democrats maintained that more drilling would create risky environmental problems and that energy companies fat with record profits were not exploring areas already open for drilling.

• As of August 1 there had been 3,449 bills and 651 resolutions introduced in the Senate, while in the House there were 6,831 bills and 1,417 resolutions introduced. The nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense released an analysis showing that to date the 110th Congress had passed only 260 laws, including 74 that renamed post offices. That number was significantly less than during any other session within the last decade. However, Congress did pass hundreds of resolutions–these should not be confused with laws–including recognizing soil as an “essential resource” and declaring a National Corvette Day.

And, a Gallup Poll survey indicated that Congress’s job-approval rating dropped to 14 percent in July, an all-time low. The survey suggested Congress is taking the heat for the country’s economic problems while President Bush’s approval rating held steady at 31 percent.

• The Senate indulged in a political football game with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) on the defense and Senate majority leader Harry Reid, (D-Nev.) on the offense. Coburn, who is an obstetrician, gained the title of “Dr. No” for using his senatorial prerogative by placing a hold on nearly 80 spending bills in his campaign against wasteful spending. Reid attempted an offensive end run by lumping 35 bills into one pork-filled $11.3 billion omnibus bill, dubbed the “Advancing America’s Priorities Act.” Included in the bill were such items as $12 million to build an orchid-growing greenhouse in Maryland, $5 million to build a museum in Poland and $17 million to protect people from injuries from chimps and other nonhuman primates. Coburn rallied the defense forces and blocked the bill, which fell eight votes short of the 60 needed to obtain cloture and move to consideration.

• Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), of “Bridge to Nowhere” fame and the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, was indicted on seven felony counts for concealing more than $250,000 in gifts from lobbying oil service companies. Stevens pleaded not guilty and asked for and received approval to move the trial date to September 24 and a change of venue to Alaska, a move that prosecutors considered inappropriate. More fallout can be expected as Stevens gave up his positions on various committees.

• Among the aviation bills introduced were:

- S.3229, introduced by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), would increase the safety of the crew and passengers in air ambulances.

- S.3416, the “Federal Aviation Administration Employee Retention Act,” introduced by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), would amend section 40122(a) of Title 49, U.S. Code, to improve the dispute resolution process at the FAA. The bill would give FAA employees the same collective-bargaining protections that employees covered by the National Labor Relations Board have.

- H.R.6446, introduced by Rep. Tim Murphy (D-Pa.), would amend Title 49, U.S. Code, to require air carriers to establish reduced air fares and more flexible terms for members of the Armed Forces on active duty.

- H.R.6493, the “Aviation Enhancement Act of 2008,” introduced by Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), would amend Title 49, U.S. Code, to enhance aviation safety. The bill would create an independent whistle-blower office within the FAA, new rules to rotate inspectors every five years and a two-year “cooling off” period before inspectors can sign on with airlines.

- H.R.6546, introduced by Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), would amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to allow tax-exempt bond financing for fixed-wing emergency medical equipment.

- H.R. 6606, introduced by Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.), would direct the Secretary of Homeland Security to impose requirements for the improvement of security camera and video surveillance systems at certain airports.