This Week in Congress

Monday, January 30th, 2012 and is filed under Blog

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Well, they’re back.  This is the first full-week session of Congress in 2012.  All too often, we find ourselves complaining about some pernicious action of Congress after it is too late to influence the outcome.  This is why it is so imperative for us to be armed with the facts and the inside information concerning legislative affairs in Washington.  We need to get out in front of the issues before the outcome becomes immutable.

We are proud to announce that every Monday we will post our new legislative bulletin for the week, The Madisonian.  We hope to provide Tea Party activists with cogent and timely information, detailing the pertinent legislative issues and concerns for conservatives on that given week.  Below the fold is our first edition.

The Week of Jan. 30 – Feb. 3

FAA Reauthorization Bill – FAA reauthorization bills grant the authority to collect taxes directed to the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, which provides the bulk of Federal Aviation Administration funding.  The revenue source includes taxes on aviation fuel, domestic and international ticket taxes, and taxes on cargo shipped by air.  The last full reauthorization expired September 2007.  Due to policy disagreements, Congress has been forced to pass a record 23 short-term stop-gap bills to fund the FAA.

Last year, the Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate passed competing long-term authorization bills.  This week, they are voting to convene a conference committee to iron out the differences.  There are several important differences of concern to conservatives.

Conservative concerns:

  • Cost and duration: The House-passed bill would authorize an estimated $60.4 billion over 4 years, while the Senate measure would authorize about $35 billion over two years – roughly $2 billion more per year.
  • Labor Issues: In 2009, the National Mediation Board (NMB), which is the equivalent of the National Labor Relations Board for railroad and airline workers, made it easier for airline and railway workers to organize unionization.  They ruled that certification of a union would be granted when a majority of all votes cast were supportive of unionization. Previously, it took a majority of all eligible class workers – even those who did not cast a ballot – to certify a union.  The House bill voided this rule, while the Senate bill maintained it.  House Republican conferees have already agreed to cave on this issue.  Conservatives must fight it.
  • Essential Air Service Program:  This is a pork program that subsidizes flights to undeserved remote airports.  It costs about $150 million annually. [more information here]  The House bill would have phased it out over three years.  The Senate bill maintains it.
  • Tax Increases: The Senate bill included $210 million in tax increases over 5 years.  The jet fuel tax for non-commercial aviation would increase from 21.8 to 35.9 cents per gallon.

Punchline:

The latest short-term bill expires February 17, and members of both parties desire to pass the long-term bill (from the conference committee) before that date.  Unfortunately, it appears that Republicans are ready to cave on many of the superior provisions in the House bill.  Once a conference report is sent to the full House and Senate, members will not have the ability to amend the bill; they must vote up-or-down on the final product.  This is why it is important for conservatives to fight for the House version during conference, or oppose the final bill if it is heavily weighted towards the Senate version.  It is better to continue with another short-term bill than to pass a bad long-term bill.

Highway Bill: – Since the inception of the Interstate Highway System in 1956, Congress has funded highway projects through the Highway Trust Fund, which is purveyed by the federal gasoline tax (currently18.4 cents per gallon of regular gas and 24.4 cents for diesel fuel).  Funding is typically authorized by long-term bills, usually 6-year authorization bills  In recent years, Congress has been diverting as much as 30% of the gas tax revenue to liberal pork projects, such as mass transit, bike lanes, and beautification projects.  Worse, they mandate to the state how this money should be spent.  All of these inefficient, wasteful projects have bankrupted the trust fund, as the gas tax revenue is no longer sufficient to fund these extravagant projects.

Much like the FAA funding, surface transportation has been funded by short-term bills over the past few years, due to the infighting over major provisions.  This week, House Republican leaders plan to introduce a $260 billion 5-year highway bill, and hope to pass it before the current short-tem bill expires March 31.  Over six years, that would add up to roughly $312 billion, $78 billion more than projected revenues, according to CBO.  Republicans plan to supplement the trust fund deficit with royalties from opening up more federal lands to domestic gas and oil exploration.  Speaker Boehner also promised to add a provision that would force Obama to authorize a permit for the Keystone pipeline.

Democrats in the Senate are marking up a competing two-year bill that will authorize $109 billion in spending, a slightly higher rate than the House bill.

Committees in both chambers plan to mark up their respective highway bills. House Natural Resources takes up that chamber’s measure (HR 7) Wednesday (10 a.m.,1324 Longworth) and the Transportation and Infrastructure panel, on Thursday (9 a.m.,2167 Rayburn). Senate Banking, House and Urban Affairs marks up a competing bill (S. 1813), also on Thursday (10 a.m., 538 Dirksen).

Conservative concerns:

  • The Cost:  Republicans are reneging on their promise to cap spending on highway bills to amount of revenue from the gas tax.  [read more here]  This bill will blow an $80 billion hole in the deficit over six years.  The plan to open up drilling on federal lands is a virtuous endeavor and should be passed as a standalone measure.  However, it is just a trap to get conservatives to support the higher levels of transportation spending.  Democrats will never agree to more drilling, and we will be left with the higher spending – without the offsetting revenues.
  • Gas Tax Hike: This bill will open the door for future tax hikes.  While Republicans currently oppose any increase in the gas tax, once they agree to overspend the tax revenue, we will always be exposed to the threat of a tax increase.  There is already an unholy alliance between the Chamber of Commerce and Big Labor in an effort to raise the gas tax.
  • Liberal Pork: This House bill will continue to fund Democrat special interest projects like mass transit.  The Senate bill is even worse.  $29 billion, or 27%, of the $109 billion authorized in the bill will be allocated for mass transit.
  • Federalism:  Since completion of the Interstate Highway System, there is no reason for the federal government to run the transportation projects of 50 states from DC.  Responsibility for transportation and its accompanying revenue source should be devolved to the states.  [read more here]  This bill will preclude conservatives from making that case for another 5 years.

Punchline:

Call your members of Congress and tell them to oppose the highway bill, and pass the energy bills in separate legislation.  Kindly request that they consider voting for HR 1737, a bill to devolve transportation authority to the states.

Extension of payroll tax cut, unemployment benefits, and Medicare ‘Doc Fix’ – These are three disparate issues that should be dealt with separately, but Congress has unwisely chosen to package them into one bill.  In December, Congress passed a two month extension of the 2% payroll tax cut, unprecedented 99 weeks of unemployment benefits, and reimbursement payments to doctors for Medicare patients (doc fix).  They shunted a long-term decision off to a conference committee.  On Wednesday (at 1100 Longworth), the conference committee is meeting to work out a full-year deal between the House and Senate.

Conservative Concerns

  • Payroll Tax Cut: While conservatives support any tax cut available, this business of short-term “stimulus” gimmicks is inane.  We should either make the tax cut permanent or force Democrats into a long-term agreement on the funding mechanism for Social Security.
  • Unemployment benefits: Democrats want to extend 99 weeks of unemployment benefits for another full year.  Its revenue source only covers 39 weeks, and this proposal will only increase the debt further. [read more here] We must demand that Republicans stand by their pledge to phase out the super-long term unemployment benefits, so the program doesn’t become another permanent welfare entity.
  • Doc Fix and Spending Offsets: In the long run, we need to expose Medicare to free-market forces in order to bring down the cost of healthcare and health insurance.  Until then, we are forced to reimburse physicians who are underpaid by the Medicare “SGR formula” for payments.  However, Republicans pledged to pay for doc fix and unemployment benefits.  Together, they will cost about $60 billion.  Republicans must stick to their original plan to pay for these two expenditures with real cuts, not nebulous cuts spread out over 10 years [read more here].

Punchline:

Conservatives in the House should not be forced to vote for a final conference report (which cannot be amended) that contains both a tax cut and more entitlement spending without real offsets.  This proposition places them in an awkward position of voting for more spending in order to forestall a tax increase.  House Republicans must pass a separate tax cut bill, while dealing with the spending provisions in a new bill.  Unemployment benefits and Medicare doc fix must be reformed and paid for with real spending cuts.


Ancillary Issues this week

–          Here is a list of some of the smaller issues that will be considered in Congress this week.