Congressional Observer: December 2008

 - December 1, 2008, 11:02 AM

• Almost immediately after his election, President-elect Barack Obama considered possible members of his Cabinet and staff. Obama and vice president-elect Joe Biden will give up their seats in the Senate. The governors of Illinois and Delaware, respectively, will choose their replacements. Should any of the current members of Congress be called on to fill cabinet positions, their successors will also need to be chosen. Early on, Obama selected Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) to be his chief of staff; more appointments were expected during the transition period.

• The election gave Democrats control of the House of Representatives and the Senate, but at press time there were still election results pending in some areas. In the Senate, Democrats picked up five Republican seats, bringing their total to 54; they had hoped to gain 60 seats to ensure a filibuster-proof majority to keep Republicans from blocking their legislative proposals. The 67 votes needed to provide a veto-proof majority was thought to be out of reach.

• A week before the election Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the longest-serving Republican Senator in U.S. history, was found guilty of seven felony counts, each with a maximum penalty of five years in prison, for lying on financial disclosure forms to conceal gifts received for expensive renovations to his house. Stevens appealed the verdict claiming “prosecutorial misconduct.” Eight days later “Uncle Ted,” as Alaskans dubbed him for providing huge amounts of money for projects in Alaska, stood for election. At press time, Democrat Mark Begich, mayor of Anchorage, had a thin margin over Stevens. State officials estimated that 40,000 votes remained to be counted and that declaring a winner would take several weeks.

Should Stevens win this tight race he would be the first convicted felon to win an election to the Senate. According to the Senate historian, four other senators who were convicted of felonies left office or quit at the end of their terms. Senate rules would allow Stevens to serve and vote in the chamber during the appeal process, but the Senate Ethics Committee could hold hearings on expelling him. Expulsion would require a two-thirds vote of all sitting Senators.

• The federal budget deficit climbed to $454.8 billion this year, tripling the $161.5 billion recorded last year, and surpassing the previous yearly record of $413 billion set in 2004. The Bush administration estimated that the deficit will rise to

$482 billion, but that figure does not include the costs of the financial rescue program Congress passed in early October. Economists predict a far worse number next year as the costs of the financial rescue program and economic hard times take a toll on the nation’s balance sheet.

• Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) talked

up holding a lame-duck session that would consider passing

a $200 billion economic-stimulus package. This would be the second stimulus package passed this year. The first, a $146 billion law passed in January, saw tax rebate checks of $300 to $1,200 sent to most taxpayers.

• Pork projects continue to have the attention of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW). The Fiscal Year 2009 Military Construction/Veterans Affairs/Homeland Security Acts have garnered negative attention from the association. CAGW pointed out that the Military Construction Act included 172 pork-barrel projects costing $1.2 billion. Senate Appropriations chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) tacked on $27 million for

a fuel system/corrosion control hangar at Yeager Airport.

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) led all lawmakers with $49.3 million in pork that included $27 million for the Southeast Region Research Initiative, an organization, according to CAGW, that has not published any reports on its Web site. CAGW documented the Commerce, Justice and Science bill as having 1,123 projects at a cost of $409.8 million that included $1.35 million for planetarium costs and equipment and $400,000 for horseshoe crab research at Virginia Tech.

The Labor, Health & Human Services and Education bill contained 1,370 earmarks at a cost of $618.8 million. Included was $25 million by 30 House members for the National Writing Project and $100,000 for the Toledo Grows High School Learning Initiative, “a community gardening outreach program.”