Winds of Change Not Blowing Through This Week

Posted April 28, 2008 at 6:32pm

If the biggest bill in the House this week involves dust, this might not be the week for Congressional excitement.

With leaders working behind the scenes to come up with a supplemental war spending bill and a farm bill conference report, the House and Senate will be wiling away their time the next few days, respectively, on combustible dust regulations and a run-of-the-mill federal aviation bill that has all the excitement of a three-hour layover in Newark.

[IMGCAP(1)]No doubt both chambers are aiming to capitalize on recent news stories about dust-related factory explosions and problems with airline maintenance inspections that grounded thousands of flights in the past month. But that doesn’t mean that most staffers are advising Congress watchers to hit their snooze buttons until next week when it’s more likely that both the supplemental and the farm bill conference will be ready for prime time.

Other than the thunderstorms that threatened to keep Senators from flying to Washington on Monday night, the Senate sucked the drama out of the floor debate on the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill by finding bipartisan compromises on several issues.

For example, the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee included a watered-down version of the “Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights” in the measure, and Aviation Operations, Safety and Security Subcommittee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) agreed last week to fund a new air traffic control system with a tax increase on fuel used by private planes.

The bipartisan-backed passengers’ rights provisions would not require that planes stuck on the tarmac return to gates within a set time, but would require the airlines to come up with time frames for permitting delayed passengers to deplane. It was unclear at press time whether Democrats would seek to strengthen that language.

That leaves a few parochial fights, such as one over the FAA’s decision to reconfigure airspace around New York’s LaGuardia Airport to ease congestion. Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) have blocked the nomination of acting FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell over the issue.

The Senate might also decide to argue about whether air traffic controllers can resume union contract talks with the FAA. The agency has used existing law to force controllers to work under FAA-imposed rules since negotiations with the union broke down in 2006, but many Democrats in the House and Senate want to see those talks rekindled. The Senate bill would require the FAA to submit to binding arbitration if future talks with the union are unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if there’s anything, legislatively, that the Senate can do to deal with the airline maintenance issues or with the proposed merger of Delta and Northwest airlines.

But Democratic aides said that won’t stop some from trying, particularly in light of the FAA’s push for bolstered airplane maintenance, which began after the agency was accused of ignoring whiste-blower complaints about faulty maintenance at Southwest Airlines. The fallout from that caused the FAA to step up enforcement of maintenance inspections — a situation that forced American Airlines to cancel 3,000 flights.

Then, there’s the combustible dust bill in the House that comes on the heels of a sugar plant explosion that killed 13 in Georgia earlier this year, and other factory blasts in the Southeast that were related to chemical dust.

Under the measure, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration would have to come up with regulations for combustible dust in the workplace. The measure is likely to be attacked by Republicans as an “unfunded mandate” on businesses.

The House is also expected to send to the president legislation barring insurance companies and employers from discriminating on the basis of genetics.