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Archive for the ‘Transportation’ Category

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.

First Bag Flies Free

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

luggageYour Congress loves you, and it will do anything to make you happy.

That’s why they’ve introduced H.R. 4077, The First Bag Flies Free Act. The bill would require airlines to transport your first piece of luggage for free.

We all know that airlines have been struggling to make money lately, and one model they’ve stumbled upon is to charge extra dollars for lots of little things—like, in some cases, transporting your luggage.

A lot of people don’t like that. Hence, this bill. But is it really Congress’ job to do what you’re supposed to be doing? Hey—if you don’t like paying to ship your luggage, why not call the airlines rather than (literally) making a federal case out of it. Toughen up, kiddo!

Or, sit back and let Congress take care of everything. They do love you, and they so so want you to be happy.

Here’s the current vote on “First Bag Flies Free.” Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article about the bill.

Let’s Go Cruising!

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

cruiseshipIt’s a big day for boating in the House of Representatives.

The House passed H.R. 3618, the Clean Hull Act of 2009, earlier today. It would provide for implementation of the International Convention on the Control of Harmful Anti-Fouling Systems on Ships, 2001.

That convention prohibits the use of harmful organotins in anti-fouling paints on ships. I have no idea what an “organotin” is—but they sound awful! I’m against them!

And H.R. 3360, the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2009, also passed the House today. It would establish requirements to ensure the security and safety of passengers and crew on cruise vessels. Well, thank goodness! It’s now safe to go cruising!

All in all, a big day for taking to the high seas.

Here are the current votes on H.R. 3618, the Clean Hull Act of 2009 and H.R. 3360, the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2009. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki articles about the bills.

Chasing the Headlines—Electronics in Cockpits Edition

Friday, November 6th, 2009

kid-stuck-outside-airplane-window-blooperTwo bills introduced yesterday in Congress would require pilots to avoid distractions when they’re flying planes.

Sounds like a good idea! And it sounds like Congress is surfing the headlines!

It’s what we call “wakerider” legislation, when Congress jumps in on the latest news, offering a “fix”—often too late.

Of course, it was just last week that some Northwest pilots overshot their destination by 150 miles because they were on their laptops, distracted.

Congress to the rescue!

S. 2732 would require the Federal Aviation Administration to prohibit the use of portable electronic devices in the cockpit of commercial aircraft during flight and to conduct a study of the safety impact of distracted pilots. S. 2745 would prohibit the use of personal wireless communications devices and laptop computers by the flight crew of commercial aircraft on the flight deck during flight.

We’re all opposed to airline pilots being distracted. And the incident in question has pretty much made clear that camping on your laptop while you’re flying a commercial airliner is a no-no.

Did anyone think it was OK before? And does anyone actually think that having a new law about it—after the fact—is going to make a difference in pilots’ behavior? When some pilots screw up again, will Congress pass a law barring pilots from screwing up?

The point here, of course, is that Congress is trying to assert its relevance to everything that happens in the country. Should these bills pass, every time a plane doesn’t crash, we’ll have our federal legislators to thank!