Congressional Observer: August 2003
Although the presidential elections will not take place until November next year, the voting public can expect the Bush Administration and members of Congress to gear up and steadily move forward on domestic programs that will have the most influence on voters when it is time to cast ballots. Obviously, President Bush wants to be reelected and, at the same time, retain party control over the Senate and the House of Representatives. Bush has already proposed and signed into law two tax cuts. Such issues as Medicare reform and prescription drug benefits for senior citizens are currently in the forefront, and other public-benefit legislation will undoubtedly follow. Republicans and Democrats will be looking ahead to point with pride or view with scorn as they judge congressional accomplishments.
• The federal budget deficit continues to climb because of tax cuts and the surge in defense spending. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office forecasts that the deficit will top $400 billion for the fiscal year ending September 30, doubling the $199 billion predicted shortfall in January. It remains to be seen whether the deficit will have an effect on Congress as it considers an expensive Medicare overhaul and the 13 agency appropriations bills for fiscal 2004.
• The nearly two-year-old congressional plan for the U.S. Air Force to lease 100 Boeing 767 tankers continues to provoke controversy. Apparently, concerned parties agree that the current fleet of KC-135 tankers, whose average age is 42 years, needs replacement or modernization since 25 percent of the 544 airplanes now in use are grounded at any given time for maintenance and repairs. An earlier agreement that came to $17 billion was renegotiated and now the estimated cost for each 767 tanker is $138 million, which includes a “lease unique” charge of $7 million. Numerous government spending watchdogs call this deal a blatant case of corporate pork. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has long been opposed to the lease deal.
• At press time two items of aviation legislation were awaiting conference committee resolution. By a vote of 94-0 the Senate approved S.824, the “Aviation Investment and Revitalization Vision Act,” sponsored by Sen. McCain and other members of the Senate Commerce Committee.
By a vote of 418-8 the House approved H.R.2115, the “Flight 100-Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act,” sponsored by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and other members of the committee.
The bills include a provision for $100 million in financial assistance to general aviation businesses for losses sustained after 9/11. There is also a provision that would allow on-demand charter operators to sell available seats at a negotiated price on small aircraft serving non-commercial airports. Another House amendment would add 20 daily flights to Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), 12 of which would be long distance (beyond 1,250 miles from the airport) and eight would be short-haul flights. The Airport Improvement Program (AIP) would receive $3.4 billion for FY2004, which would rise to $4 billion in FY2007.
Section 420 of the House bill clarifies and affirms existing requirements that aviation manufacturers must make maintenance information available to repair stations and other maintenance providers for a fair and reasonable price.
• Rep. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) added an amendment to H.R.2144, the “Aviation Security Technical Corrections and Improvement Act,” that would require the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to issue regulations within 30 days of passage to allow eligible FAR Part 91 aircraft to resume use of DCA. Some detractors view the amendment as a ploy to circumvent the authority of the DHS, while proponents are optimistic that the amendment will stay intact.
• Early last month Deputy Transportation Secretary Michael Jackson announced that he would resign on August 1, citing that this high-pressure job had taken too much time from his family. During DOT Secretary Norman Mineta’s long hospitalization because of back problems, Jackson virtually ran the DOT and has been mentioned as a possible successor to Mineta. Jackson came to the DOT from a post as a vice president at Lockheed Martin and indicated that the DOT job had become a financial burden.
• S.1339, introduced by Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), would provide appropriate overtime pay for National Weather Service employees who perform essential weather services during severe-weather events.
• H.R.2499, the “General Aviation Small Business Relief Act of 2003,” introduced by Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), would provide economic relief to GA small business concerns that have suffered substantial economic injury as a result of 9/11.
• H.R.2587, introduced by Rep Tim Holden (D-Pa.), would establish a combat badge for helicopter medical evacuation ambulance (medevac) pilots and crews.
• H.R.2632, the “Safe Aviation and Flight Enhancement Act,” introduced by Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.), would direct the Secretary of Transportation to issue a regulation requiring the installation of two combined cockpit voice recorder/digital flight-data recorder systems in each commercial passenger aircraft currently required to carry one each of those separate recorders.