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Archive for the ‘Transportation’ Category

Congress Plays Hide-the-Ball with “Legislative Vehicles”

Sunday, April 10th, 2016

three card monteIt’s not like Congress came up with a devious plan to frustrate public oversight. But over years, things have been a little easier when they’ve used a “legislative vehicle.” Debating one bill as an amendment to a different bill is now something they do with frustrating regularity.

Never mind what good reasons there are for the practice, the “legislative vehicle” concept should be scrapped.

The Federal Aviation Administration is periodically reauthorized by Congress. Well and good. But as our friends at GovTrack point out, Congress is set to debate FAA reauthorization on a “legislative vehicle”—a different bill.

S. 2658, the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2016, is a bill to reauthorize the FAA. What it does is right there in the title, and sites like ours help inform the public about it. Passage of S. 2658 would cost about $143 per U.S. family.

But the Senate isn’t taking up S. 2658 next week. Instead, it’s going to take the text of FAA reauthorization and pop it into another bill, H.R. 636. The tax tweaks in H.R. 636 were slipped into the Consolidated Appropriations Act last year, so the bill itself was just sitting around…

But that’s no reason to use that bill as a legislative vehicle for another one. You see, when ordinary Americans go to follow along and they see that the Senate is debating “H.R. 636,” they’re going to see a bill about small business taxes, not the FAA.

Sure, insiders know that this switcheroo has happened, but that’s just an illustration of how the “legislative vehicle” concept privileges insiders.

So, we propose the following: no legislative vehicles. Legislative vehicles are “hide-the-ball” and they come with a presumption that Congress is up to no good.

Save the Delta Queen!

Sunday, February 21st, 2016

Delta QueenIt’s great to see Americans pursuing what they want from Congress apart from the harshness of partisanship and the tawdriness of interest-group lobbying. That’s democracy at its best. And the folks that want to save the Delta Queen are doing so, including by advocating for their cause on WashingtonWatch.com.

The bills they care about are S. 1717 and H.R. 1248. The two bills would exempt old vessels that only operate within inland waterways from certain fire-retardant materials requirements. Essentially, they would grandfather grand, old-time boats like the Delta Queen from being required to follow modern shipbuilding requirements.

In 1966, Congress passed legislation called the Safety of Life at Sea Act, which banned wooden ships from carrying 50 or more passengers overnight at sea. The Coast Guard interpreted it as applying to river travel, as well, which would have shut down the Delta Queen. So in 1968, Congress passed an exemption for the Queen, extending the extension seven times over the next 40 years.

Presently, that extension has lapsed, and the Delta Queen sits dockside. If the exemption is renewed, the Delta Queen will be able to ply the waters of the Mississippi and other major rivers.

If you like the idea of the Delta Queen carrying passengers again, you might want to let your representatives know that. If you don’t, you might want to let your representatives know that, too.

Here are the current votes on S. 1717 and H.R. 1248. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki articles about the bills.

Oh, What a Tangled Web We Weave

Sunday, August 2nd, 2015

460427632_d69c38acb0_zDeceitful or not, convoluted legislative processes keep you, the public, from following along. That keeps you from having a say. It takes your power away.

So let’s see how Washington’s convoluted processes worked this past week!

The subject is transportation spending. It’s a bipartisan issue, so you don’t hear about it very much. Everyone in Washington, D.C., is agreed on transportation spending. Insiders have no interest in drawing the attention of you outsiders, because you might complain! (And maybe you agree with it—just sayin’…)

The last major transportation bill to pass was MAP-21 three years ago. It spent about $230 per U.S. family on surface transportation programs, but do NOT trust such estimates. Congress uses all kinds of budget gimmicks such as “rising baseline” budgeting to skew the numbers. They use a “Highway Trust Fund” to pretend Congress isn’t levying taxes and spending the money.

In August 2014, Congress passed a short extension of transportation spending programs through May 31, 2015. Cost: about $30 per family. (Don’t trust that number.)

When Congress couldn’t agree on a long-term bill by then, they passed another short-term extension with a July 31, 2015 deadline for getting transportation spending figured out. There was no official cost estimate for that bill. (Finally, a lack of number you can trust!)

A bill wasn’t finalized by the end of the week last week. The Senate took H.R. 22 (formerly a bill to exempt employees with health coverage under TRICARE or the Veterans Administration from being taken into account for purposes of the Obamacare employer mandate) and turned it into the new transportation funding bill. At the same time, an amendment to re-establish the Export-Import Bank got put in. That was not popular with some who had just fought to end it. H.R. 22 passed the Senate, but it is not going to get passed by the House.

The House went ahead and passed another bill to exempt workers covered by military health care coverage from employee counts for the purposes of Obamacare. H.J. Res. 61, the Hire More Heroes Act of 2015, saves about $6.30 per U.S. family.

It also passed H.R. 3236, the Surface Transportation and Veterans Health Care Choice Improvement Act of 2015. That bill extended transportation spending until October 29, 2015, and it took service members and veterans with health care coverage out of employee counts for purposes of employer mandates in Obamacare. That bill has a combination of spending and revenues that cause it to cost about $39 per U.S. family, while decreasing their share of the national debt by about $36.

All make sense?

If so, then you probably have an opinion on H.R. 3236. Here’s the current vote on the bill. CLick to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article about it.

From Farce to Tragedy

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

Last weekend, we reported how Congress had failed to pass identical versions of the same bill in the House and Senate, meaning it couldn’t be signed into law. Now they’ve fixed the problem … by lying.

S. 853 and H.R. 1765 are both called the Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013. They allow the Federal Aviation Administration to move money around so that it doesn’t have to furlough air traffic controllers under the across-the-board budget cuts produced by sequestration.

Late last week, the House and Senate each passed their bills, and the Senate agreed to automatically pass a bill “identical” to the one they had passed when the House version arrived. Except, before the House version arrived, its sponsor amended it, changing the word “account” to “accounts” in one place. (The FAA has to move money from multiple appropriations accounts in order to pay air traffic controllers, not just one.) That meant that the bills weren’t identical and couldn’t be sent to the president for his signature.

Well, the fix is in. And we mean “fix” in the worst possible way. Rather than pass a bill identical to the House bill, the Senate lied to itself to get the bill through the process. And the bill is now what can only be called a grammatical embarrassment.

During a one-minute session on Tuesday, the Senate agreed by unanimous consent to retrieve the bill it passed from the House “in order for the Secretary of the Senate to make corrections in the engrossment of this bill.” Engrossment—that’s when the Secretary of the Senate produces the official copy to send to the House or the president.

The thing is, there were no corrections to make. The Secretary had engrossed the bill correctly. It’s just that the Senate had passed a bill with “account” in it and the House had passed a bill with “accounts” in it.

But I guess if you’re the Secretary of the Senate, you’re going to take the fall sometimes. The House and Senate couldn’t take the time to do things right, and they decided that it’s the Secretary’s fault.

But that’s not all. With this “error” cleared up, a shiny new one has emerged. When the House and Senate changing the word “account” to “accounts” in one place, it forgot to do so the second place in the same sentence!

The idea is to allow the FAA to use money from multiple Treasury accounts to fund air traffic controllers. Here’s a shortened version of what the convoluted sentence says in the final version of the bill:

Notwithstanding [other laws and policies], the Secretary of Transportation may transfer during fiscal year 2013 [up to $253,000,000] to the appropriations accounts providing for the operations of the Federal Aviation Administration, for any activity or activities funded by that account, from [airport grants-in-aid] or any other program or account of the Federal Aviation Administration.

We’ve added italics to show you the two instances of “account/s” that don’t match up. The second one is still singular, referring back to the first one, which is plural.

But what the heck. When Congress is moving only a quarter-billion dollars around, there isn’t much reason to take time to get it right.

Maybe President Obama can straighten this out. He, after all, promised as a candidate for president in 2008 that there would be a five-day public review of all bills sent him by Congress.

Oh. The bill was presented to him Tuesday, the White House posted it on the pending legislation page at 6:42 p.m. that day, and he signed it on Wednesday. Oh well.

Hey, Congress! Think You Passed a Law? We Don’t.

Saturday, April 27th, 2013

The FAA has suspended all employee furloughs, and they say things will be back to normal soon. This is in anticipation of the president signing legislation Congress passed to lift the sequester as to the FAA.

But we don’t think he can sign the bill, because we don’t think Congress passed it.

There is outrage in some quarters about the bill or bills “passed” last week to side-step sequestration‘s effects on the Federal Aviation Administration. Under the threat of flight delays, the bills allow the Department of Transportation to move funds around and unclog things at FAA.

But Congress acted in such haste that it may not have actually passed identical legislation in both houses.

This gets complicated fast, so stow your carry-ons, restore your seat to its upright position, and buckle your seat belt.

The Constitution says, “Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States.” The use of the singular means there can’t be two pretty similar bills. One bill—the exact same—per law.

So what happened with the FAA de-sequester?

First, on Thursday, the Senate passed S. 853, the Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013, which had been introduced earlier that day. You can view the text of Senate-passed bill on page S3069 of Thursday’s Congressional Record, or in text or PDF on the Government Printing Office site. The text matters.

Apparently, someone determined that the Senate bill was a revenue measure, which must originate in the House. (This is according to The Hill.) I don’t think it is (take a look at the complicated rules in this area if you want).

Whatever the case, after passing the bill Thursday, the Senate agreed that a bill coming from the House that was identical to the Senate-passed bill would be automatically passed by the Senate.

Here’s the language of the Senate unanimous consent request. The text matters again, because it uses the word “ïdentical”:

Mr. REID. Madam President, I ask unanimous consent that if the Senate receives a bill from the House and the text of that bill is identical to S. 853, the bill then be considered read three times and passed and the motion to re-consider be considered made and laid upon the table.

So when on Friday the House passed H.R. 1765, that was supposed to wrap things up. It would go to the Senate for automatic passage followed by a trip down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House for the president’s signature.

But at about the same time as the Hill story was reporting that the bill was greased to be sent to the president, something else was going on. Exactly why it happened, I can only guess, but Rep. Tom Latham (R-IA), the sponsor or H.R. 1765, came to the House floor, where he sought and received unanimous consent to change the language of that House-passed bill.

“Mr. Speaker,” he said, “I ask unanimous consent that in the engrossment of H.R. 1765, the Clerk strike ‘account’ on page 2, line 14, and insert ‘accounts.'” This is done once in a while in the House to fix errors, telling the clerk to do it before sending it on to the Senate or president.

The word “account” appears three times in the bill. It’s hard to know which of the three instances of “account” he was referring to, but the version of the bill published by the House Rules Committee on Friday morning has “account” on page 2, line 14.

“Account” refers to appropriations accounts—they’re basically bank accounts at the Treasury Department. There are hundreds of them, and each one is used for different purposes at different agencies.

The bill originally passed by the House referred to a single appropriations account that funds the FAA, but there are probably more than one. Perhaps folks in the House realized that they have to give the Transportation Department authority to move funds from any number of accounts or else the bill wasn’t going to work. Thus, the change from “account” to “accounts.”

Still, things are strange. If I’m right about the first instance of “account” at line 14 being changed, that makes the sentence non-grammatical. The second instance of “account,” in that same sentence, have been changed, too. The third time “account” appears in the bill is in a place where it doesn’t matter whether it’s singular or plural because it’s preceded by the indefinite article “any.”

Whatever the case, the word “accounts” (plural) doesn’t appear anywhere in the Senate-passed bill.

That means that the House did not send an identical version of the Senate-passed bill. And that means that the unanimous consent agreement in the Senate to pass an identical bill does not apply.

H.R. 1765 did not pass the Senate.

Now, that’s a lot of mumbo-jumbo and dancing on the head of a pin. But it’s also the legislative process of our national government. People who respect it and believe it deserves respect take it seriously. People who take our government and the rule of law seriously take seriously the constitutional rule that the House and Senate must pass identical bills. They take seriously the exact terms of unanimous consent agreements in the Senate and the House.

Can Congress and the president agree that they have passed a law just because they meant to, even if they didn’t? Or do they have to follow the regular procedures to the very last letter, even if there’s an extra letter “s”?

It’s a good thing to discuss while the bill gets the five days of online public review that President Obama promised when he campaigned for president. We expect the bill will soon show up on Whitehouse.gov’s “Pending Legislation” page, at which time it will have its five days of Sunlight Before Signing.

Transportation Spending Hits Bumps

Saturday, February 25th, 2012

For a long time, transportation spending has been a matter of bi-partisan agreement—both parties saw it as a way to bring home the bacon. But the smooth road that transportation bills normally enjoy is starting to see some potholes.

Yesterday, the New York Times wrote up how a Republican transportation spending bill in the House got stalled out. On the one hand, the smaller bill didn’t provide enough money to fund public transportation programs or buy the votes of hesitant members of Congress with earmarks. And on the other hand, it spent too much money for fiscal conservatives. So…

With support for their highway bill crumbling, Republican leaders spent much of a weeklong Congressional recess [last week] considering a variety of changes to the bill, including shortening it and thus its price tag, and restoring transit financing, with the hope of blunting the biggest objections and securing the bill’s passage in the coming weeks.

H.R. 7 is the bill. The most recently available version of the bill costs about $1,650 per U.S. family and increases their $154,317.96 share of the national debt by about $950. Big, expensive bill.

Meanwhile, the Senate has a bill that is supposed to be on a smoother road. That bill is S. 1813, the MAP-21. “MAP-21″ stands for “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act.” (We love us those clever bill names!) That bill costs about $127 per U.S. family, spending that increases that national debt by the same amount.

It’s interesting to watch the traditions around transportation spending go through some twists and turns. We’ll see if Congress straightens out the road and moves money out for projects across the nation, or if we have a sea-change in overland travel.

Here are the current votes on H.R. 7 and S. 1813. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki articles about the bills.

Because the Federal Government Has a Say in Everything

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

S. 1918 would impose a fee on air carriers that charge passengers for a first checked bag or a first carry-on bag.

The folks at the Transportation Security Administration think that one of the reasons that airlines are imposing fees on checked bags is because the downstream effect of that is to complicate things for the TSA, not the airlines themselves. When more people carry bags onto planes, that lengthens the TSA’s lines, not the airlines’. So along comes the Department of Homeland Security to get Congress to balance things out by penalizing airlines for charging for bags.

So the checkpoints at the airport aren’t just annoying to travelers. They’re a way for the government to wend its way into how airlines do business in each and every respect.

Congress should probably fix the underlying policy of transportation security excess rather than imposing additional fees on airlines that charge for checked bags.

Every Tweak to the Tax Code is Done for a Good Reason

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

S. 1233 would amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to provide a credit against income tax to facilitate the accelerated development and deployment of advanced safety systems for commercial motor vehicles.

Let’s Fix the Roads!

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

H.R. 2107 would improve the safety of “high risk rural roads.”

What’s up with H.R. 2847?

Saturday, January 9th, 2010

confusedH.R. 2847 started its life as the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Act. That’s one of the big annual spending bills we talked about in this recent post.

Congress didn’t pass the bill. The substance of it became law in the Consolidated Appropriations Act.

Now Congress, in its infinite wisdom, is using that bill as a vehicle for a couple of other bills. It has cut out the previous language and substituted in the “Jobs for Main Street Act, 2010″ as Division A and the “Statutory Pay-As-You-Go Act of 2009″ (H.R. 2920) as Division B.

Here’s a quick summary of the “Jobs for Main Street Act”:

It takes $75 billion in Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds, and spends it on infrastructure and job programs. $43.8 billion of the money will go to infrastructure spending, including $27.5 billion for highway infrastructure, $8.4 billion for public transportation, $2 billion for clean water programs, $2 billion for energy innovation loans, $4.1 billion for school renovation grants, $1 billion for the National Housing Trust Fund, and $1 billion for the Public Housing Capital Fund.

$26.7 billion of the $75 billion will go toward public service jobs, including $23 billion for an Education Jobs Fund, $1.18 billion for law enforcement jobs, $500 million for firefighter jobs, $500 million for summer youth employment, and $750 million for job training for high growth fields.

It also spends another $79 billion on “continuing emergency funding,” including $41 billion to extend unemployment insurance for six months (previously extended by this law), $12.3 billion to extend from nine to 15 months the 65% COBRA health insurance subsidy, $354 million for small business loan programs, $23.5 billion to extend FMAP through June 2010, and $2.3 billion to increase eligibility for the child tax credit.

And a couple of other things too.

The most recent cost estimate for all this is about $470 per U.S. family.

So that’s what’s up with H.R. 2847!

Here’s the current vote on it, unfortunately reflecting the votes that accumulated on the bill when it was the CJS spending bill. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article about the bill.