Planes to nowhere? Congress plans to increase small-town airline subsidies

The Essential Air Service spends as much as thousands per passenger in remote areas. Critics say the program is wasteful and was to be phased out after a period of adjustment to ’70s deregulation.

By Alexander C. Hart
September 19, 2009
Reporting from Washington

Ely is a Nevada mining town with a population of 4,000. Located about a four-hour drive north of Las Vegas, it is perhaps most famous as the birthplace of former First Lady Pat Nixon.

Ely also is a beneficiary of Essential Air Service, a federal program established in the 1970s after airline deregulation to prevent small communities from losing access to air travel. But opponents call the program wasteful spending, noting that much of the money provides service to areas with fewer than 30 passengers a day.

This week, the Senate passed a transportation bill that includes a $38-million funding increase for the program, which now stands to receive $175 million.

In 2008, according to Senate Appropriations Committee data, Great Lakes Airlines received a subsidy of about $1.8 million for the 414 passengers it flew to and from Ely — about $4,500 per person.

The store continues on

Senate Budget Mania

UPDATE 11:43. Senate passes budget 55-43.

The Senate had its hands full today as it continued consideration of the budget. Today was a "vote-a-rama," a quirky part of the budget process where Senators are allowed to propose amendments unfettered. 

As of early this evening, more than 200 had been submitted. Senators frequently demanded roll call votes, which led Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) to comment that if roll call votes were demanded for all amendments, they would be there for more than a day just to vote on them all.

But as of this post, 82 amendments were approved after a combination of unanimous consent agreements and votes. 

Most of these amendments are political posturing. Since the budget resolution is non-binding, almost all of these amendments have no practical effect. Even if they did, the House's procedure for consideration of the budget will strip out the Senate version and replace it with the version the House passes. Any changes from the House resolution will thus occur in conference committee.

Meaningless or not, here is a quick pick of three important (or interesting) amendments passed today:

1. This one is actually a pair, S.AMDT 873 (from Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.)) and S.AMDT 974, from Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Kyl's amendment raised the estate tax exemption to $5 million and lowers the tax rate to 35 percent. Durbin's amendment bans any legislation that has an estate-tax rate below 45 percent. The two have almost exactly opposite effects. The amendments passed 51-48 and 56-43, respectively.

2. S. AMDT 910, proposed by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), prohibits legislation that includes a national energy tax that would affect the middle class. According to the amendment, "The term  `National energy tax increase'' means any legislation that the Congressional Budget Office would score as leading to an increase in the costs of producing, generating or consuming energy." This amendment passed 65-33.

3. S. AMDT 803, sponsored by Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, requires a 60-vote threshold for legislation that would increase revenues raised by lowering the deduction for charitable giving. The Senate version of the budget contains no such provisions, but it did not impede the measure on its way to passing 94-3.

The House passed their version of the budget earlier this evening — 233-196, with all Republicans and 20 Democrats voting no. As of this post, the Senate has three amendments to consider and will then vote on final passage.

H.R. 1105 Clears the Senate: We Have Ourselves an Appropriations Bill

After a grueling day of rejecting Republican amendments, the Senate passed H.R. 1105 (the omnibus appropriations bill). President Obama has declared he will sign the bill.

The vote followed the rejection of six Republican amendments, which would have forced the bill to a conference committee and another vote in the House of Representatives.

In a speech before the 62-35 cloture vote, which cut off debate and moved to a voice vote on passage, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev. said the Senate would focus on nominations for the rest of the week as well devote time to floor speeches. He pledged to work on creating a better feeling on the Senate floor among members, apologizing for the way consideration of the bill had gone.

Reid also said he would no longer push to cut off debate on bills just because he had a one or two vote margin. Instead, he would try to listen more to input from the other side.

Monday on the Hill

Monday must have been a frustrating day for Senate Democrats. They were ready to invoke cloture and vote on H.R. 1105 on Thursday, but due to being a vote short, they made an agreement with the Republicans to allow more amendments and vote this week.

As a result, they spent the whole day debating and beating back Republican amendments. Five amendments came up for a vote, and five amendments were rejected by margins of 11 to 31 votes.

The rejected amendments included yet another attempt by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to effectively strip out all the earmarks in the bill, and an amendment from Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) that would prohibit funding reconstruction efforts in Gaza "until the Secretary of State certifies that none of such funds will be diverted to Hamas or entities controlled by Hamas."

The bill already includes provisions banning aid to Hamas.

Today looks like it might be similar to Monday. Of the 13 amendments Republicans introduced Friday, nine remain to be voted upon. It is possible some will be ignored due to backroom negotiations, but it is likely several will come up for a vote tonight.

Our votes for most interesting amendments awaiting a vote: Sen. John Ensign's  (R-Nev.) amendment to save the Washington, D.C. school-voucher program and Sen. David Vitter's (R-La.) action to require Congress to take a vote on all future pay raises.

The D.C. Opportunity Scholars program is facing discontinuation after the 2009-2010 school year due to language inserted in the spending bill. Ensign's amendment would strike the language that imperils the $14 million program. It will be an interesting vote because Democrats have traditionally opposed voucher programs, but even they cannot be excited about the public relations impact of effectively voting to remove children from schools they have chosen to attend.

Vitter's amendment would end the practice of representatives and senators receiving automatic cost-of-living pay increases. Instead, they would have to vote any time they wanted a pay raise.

If they can get through the amendments today, it is possible a final vote on the bill will take place tonight. Once again, there is a time-sensitive element to negotiations; the current continuing resolution only lasts through Wednesday.

Will the Republicans succeed in making an amendment? Or will the bill pass as written? Tell us what you think.