Congressional Observer: October 2008

 - October 9, 2008, 10:12 AM

• While Congress was on a five-week recess from August to September, the process for nominating presidential candidates (Senators John McCain and Barack Obama) took over the news headlines and focused attention on the coming election. As the campaign heated up and gathered steam, there were ever more promises as to what each candidate, if elected, would do by way of new programs and legislation.

However, the President can only suggest, recommend, request, cajole and entreat Congress, which has the lawmaking power to carry out the administration policies and programs. History has shown that no matter what party has control of the Senate and the House of Representatives, lawmakers do not always introduce and enact legislation that follows presidential desires.

• Meanwhile, Washington spending watchdogs were barking and the latest was the Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), which named House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) “Porkers of the Month” for leading a do-nothing Congress into the five-week recess. CAGW pointed out that since January, only 106 bills had been enacted and that 94 of them, or 89 percent, were to name government buildings or land, extend or make technical corrections to existing laws, or were passed either by unanimous consent or with fewer than 10 dissenting votes. CAGW noted such dubious achievements as “Frank Sinatra Day,” “National Plumbing Industry Week” and “National Day of the Cowboy.”

• October 1 was the deadline for Congress to pass 12 appropriations bills that fund the government agencies for the fiscal year. Before the recess the house had passed one bill, and the House Appropriations Committee approved just four others. The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved nine but none has come to the floor for a vote. The word circulating is that Congress will be waiting for the results of the presidential election to determine how comfortable the new President will be with higher spending and more earmarks. A moratorium on offshore drilling, typically renewed through the appropriations process, might or might not come up for a vote.

If Congress misses the October 1 deadline, the result will likely be a series of continuing resolutions that allows government agencies to spend based on the funding approved in the previous fiscal year. In previous years, the legislature has passed an omnibus bill that lumps all agency funding into one huge piece of legislation. That is a possibility if the deadline passes with no progress on the appropriations bill.

Still up in the air was finalizing FAA reauthorization and finishing the debate on energy legislation.

• Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who has been indicted on seven felony counts for concealing more than $250,000 in various gifts from an oil service company, pushed for his trial date to be advanced so that he could participate in the Alaskan election primaries and asked that the venue be changed to Alaska. The new trial date was granted, Stevens won the primary, but he lost out on moving the trial to Alaska.

• The CAGW noted that between 1995 and 2008 Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, had initiated pork-barrel projects worth $3.4 billion, making Alaska the number-one pork recipient every year since 1999. Stevens, the sponsor of what has been termed “The Bridge to Nowhere,” also came up with $25 million for a super computer to study how to trap energy from the aurora borealis; $750,000 for grasshopper research; $500,000 for the Alaska Spruce Bark Beetle Task Force; $200,000 for the city of the North Pole for recreation improvements; and $176,000 for the Reindeer Herders Association.

• Just before the recess Sen. Olympia Snow (R-Maine) introduced S.3440, the “Aviation Safety Enhancement Act of 2008,” which would amend Title 49, U.S. Code, to enhance aviation safety. Snow’s bill is a companion bill to H.R.6493, introduced by Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), and has the same provisions for the creation of an Aviation Safety Whistleblower Investigation Office. The bill would have the FAA modify the customer service initiative, mission and vision statements by removing any reference to air carriers and other entities regulated by the FAA as “customers” and to clarify that air carriers and other entities regulated by the FAA do not have the right to select the employees of the FAA who will inspect their operations.