Congressional Observer: January 2009

 - December 31, 2008, 7:04 AM

When the 111th Congress convenes this month, all the bills introduced in the 110th Congress that did not make it into law will find themselves in the Congressional dumpster. There had been 7,318 bills introduced in the House and 3,724 in the Senate, and a generous estimate is that only about 4 percent were enacted. That number includes naming of post offices, moratoriums on various tariffs and so on. Of the 40 or so aviation bills introduced, none of sky-shaking import was enacted. Lawmakers whose bills stalled will have to reintroduce those they think merit consideration.

Democratic Congressional leaders may opt for an early start in January to work on priority legislation so that it will be ready for President-elect Barack Obama’s signature shortly after he takes office. That legislation might include an economic aid measure, expanded healthcare for lower-income children and loosening rules related to federally funded stem-cell research.

Democrats who expanded their thin 51-vote majority to 58 after the election had been hoping that they would gain a total of 60 seats, a tally that would prevent Republican filibusters, but they fell short. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) won re-election in a Republican face-saving runoff vote, thereby dashing Democrat hopes. Still up for grabs at press time was the Senate race in Minnesota, where Democrat Al Franken and Republican Senator Norm Coleman were engaged in a battle whose outcome would not be decided until a number of ballots were recounted. Final results were expected sometime last month.

Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has sent a letter to President-elect Barack Obama backing the appointment of Robert Herbert as FAA Administrator. Herbert has worked for Reid since 2001 and is reputed to be an experienced civilian and military pilot. Reid was responsible for those Senate pro forma sessions that prevented President Bush from making recess appointments to a number of government positions. Acting FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell was among those in limbo. Also in the running for the FAA Administrator appointment is Duane Woerth, who was president of the Air Line Pilots Association from 1999 to 2007. Woerth has appeared before Congressional aviation committees on a range of aviation subjects.

At press time, Obama has not designated anyone to be Secretary of Transportation and it was not clear whether senior transition leaders have addressed who should lead the FAA and who should be the Secretary.

Two past newsworthy lawmakers lost their bids for re-election. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), “Uncle Ted” to Alaskans for feeding them billions of dollars in pork projects and the longest-serving Republican in Senate history, was convicted of seven felony counts just before Election Day. After an absentee ballot count, Stevens lost to challenger Mark Begich, the Democrat mayor of Anchorage. Stevens has asked a judge for a new trial on his felony counts alleging many problems with his conviction, including complaints about the jurors, the Justice Department prosecutors and the decisions of the trial judge.

Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), a nine-term Congressman indicted on charges of bribery, money laundering and misusing his office, had his appeals court bid to dismiss those charges rejected. Even after FBI agents found $90,000 in alleged bribe money in Jefferson’s freezer, voters reelected him in 2006. However, Anh “Joseph” Cao beat out Jefferson last year and will become the first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress.

CEOs of the three Detroit automakers flew to Washington in their corporate jets with tin cups in hand to ask for some $25 billion in financial aid during the first Senate and House committee hearings. Lawmakers were irritated by what they considered to be an ill-timed display of corporate excess. House members pointed out that there are 24 daily nonstop flights from Detroit to Washington and some wondered why
the executives did not jet-pool their travel. The CEOs changed their tack for the subsequent Senate hearing, opting instead to drive the 520 miles from Detroit to Washington. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, asked the threesome, “Did you drive or did you have a driver and are you going to drive back?” Committee chairman Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) attempted to ease some of the tension by asking, “Where did you stay? What did you eat?” but Shelby would have none of that.