The following is a report of how some major bills fared the last two weeks in Congress and how Southern Maryland's representative, Steny H. Hoyer (D-5th District), and Democratic Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski voted.
The House on June 24 achieved the two-thirds majority needed to pass a constitutional amendment (HJ Res 33) giving Congress and the states power to outlaw the physical desecration of the American flag. If the measure is approved by the Senate and ratified by three-fourths of the states, it will mark the first time the Bill of Rights has been amended. If ratification occurs, Congress and state legislatures would define terms such as "flag" and "desecration" as they enact flag-protection statutes. A yes vote was to amend the Bill of Rights to outlaw desecration of the American flag.
The House on June 24 passed a bill (HR 1658) giving citizens more protection in civil forfeiture actions. In those proceedings, law enforcement agencies, without filing charges, can seize property alleged to be linked to a crime. The owner must establish that the assets were illegally taken and that restitution is in order. Backers of the bill said federal prosecutors increasingly are using forfeiture to deny constitutional rights. But opponents said reports of abuses are exaggerated and that the bill would make it more difficult to prosecute crimes such as drug trafficking. The bill requires the government to produce "clear and convincing" evidence, not just an allegation, that the seized property was involved in a crime -- a higher standard of evidence that shifts the burden of proof from the owner to the government. It requires property to be returned if "substantial hardship" is demonstrated, and allows owners to sue for negligence if the government damages or loses their property. A yes vote was to pass the bill.
AVIATION TRUST FUND
The House on June 15 rejected an amendment to keep the Aviation Trust Fund part of the federal budget. The vote moved the fund "off budget" and thus exempt from statutory spending caps. The vote occurred as the House passed a $59 billion, five-year aviation funding bill (HR 1000). Financed by air travel taxes, the trust fund is spent primarily on airport infrastructure, flight security, and FAA operations. Its unspent balance subsidizes non-aviation spending and tax-cut programs. "Off budget" advocates said it is deceitful of Congress to spend aviation user fees for general purposes, while foes said Congress should not relax the discipline that has helped it turn deficits into surpluses. A yes vote was to keep the Aviation Trust Fund in the budget.
The Senate rejected a House-passed bill (HR 975) limiting steel imports so that they account for no more than 25 percent of the U.S. market. This sustained a filibuster against the bill, which sought to cap imports from countries such as Japan and Brazil at pre-July 1997 levels, with the administration using tariffs and quotas to enforce the limits. Supporters said U.S. steelmakers need help to recover from the ravages of illegally "dumped" foreign steel in recent years, while opponents called it a protectionist measure that would bring retaliation and raise prices throughout the economy. A yes vote was to limit steel imports.
LEGISLATIVE BRANCH BUDGET
The Senate on June 16 passed a fiscal 2000 legislative branch budget of $2.46 billion, up 4.5 percent from the comparable bill for fiscal 1999. The bill (HR 1905) raises the House part of the budget by less than 1 percent and the Senate share by 4 percent, with increases for support agencies such as the Library of Congress and Capitol Police accounting for the remainder of the increase. It freezes House staff salaries but allows a 3 percent raise for Senate staffers. Members' salaries are paid by a separate, permanent appropriation. The bill increases from one year to two years the period in which former members of Congress and top staffers are prohibited from directly lobbying the house of Congress where they worked. A yes vote was to increase legislative branch spending by 4.5 percent.