Congressional Observer

 - May 5, 2009, 5:18 AM

President Barack Obama charged into his presidency full of enthusiasm for plans to staff his cabinet with worthies, stimulate the economy, revise fiscal policies and eliminate wasteful government spending through earmarked amendments. Spending watchdogs noted that in the first presidential debate Obama said, “We need earmark reform, and when I am President I will go line by line to make sure that we are not spending money unwisely.”

First up was the $787 billion economic stimulus program, and if Obama sought bipartisan support he did not get it; only three Senate Republicans voted for the bill, and no House Republicans voted their approval. While the bill contained no earmarked amendments, lawmakers added a number of pet projects. Some of the items included were $25 million to build or refurbish all-terrain vehicle trails; $75 million to discourage smoking; and $20 million for the removal of small-to medium-sized fish-passage barriers.

u Next up were the appropriations for nine government agencies out of 12 that had been in the holding pattern since last October 1. The government fiscal year ends each September 30 and, ideally, appropriations for each of the agencies should be enacted into law by October 1. If lawmakers have delayed action, continuing resolutions allow the agencies to operate under the previous fiscal year budget. Last year, however, the Democrat-led Congress decided to postpone action on appropriations until March this year.

When push comes to shove, the expedient thing for Congress to do is to lump all of the appropriations into one omnibus bill. Given time, lawmakers salt the bill with an abundance of earmarks. In this current case, Congress approved a $410 billion funding bill that, combined with the three spending bills already approvedfor defense, homeland security and veterans programs, would
top $1 trillion for the first time.

Taxpayers for Common Sense, an independent spending watchdog, found 8,570 disclosed earmarks in the bill, accounting for $7.7 billion. Among the more interesting earmarks were $2 million for the promotion of astronomy in Hawaii; $1 million for Mormon cricket control in Utah; and $1.7 million designated for pig odor research in Iowa.

The bill provides funding only until September 30, the end of the fiscal year, at which time the cycle has to begin all over again. President Obama signed the bill without striking out any earmarks.

u Last up was Obama’s proposed $3.6 trillion budget, which Congress passed by 233 to 196 in the House and by 55 to 43 in the Senate.

u The corruption case against former Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska took a nosedive when Attorney General Eric Holder asked that the charges be dropped. Said Holder, “After careful review I have concluded that certain information should have been provided to the defense for use at trial. I have determined that it is in the interest of justice to dismiss the indictment and not proceed with a new trial.”

u With the start of the 111th Congress, the flood gates were opened for the introduction of bills in both houses. Many bills that did not make it through the last Congress were reintroduced and a host of new bills were added. As of the end of March, 1,852 bills had been introduced in the House and 757 in the Senate. Among the aviation bills introduced:

• S.36, introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), would repeal the perimeter rule for Reagan Washington National Airport. The bill also has a provision that no federal funds may be obligated or expended to enforce the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey rule banning flights beyond 1,500 miles (or any other flight distance-related restriction) from arrival or departure at New York
La Guardia Airport.

• S.452, the “Back Country Landing Strip Access Act,” introduced by Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), would ensure public access to federal land and to the airspace over it.

• H.R.680, the “Air Force One Built in America Act,” introduced by Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), would require that the aircraft used as Air Force One by the President be made in America by an American-owned company.

• H.R.880, 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 aircraft.

• H.R.990, introduced by Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), would amend Title 49, U.S. Code, to establish additional goals for airport master plans.