Congress heads home without extending FAA funding

A last-minute Obama administration effort to get the Senate to accept a funding extension that would have returned 4,000 Federal Aviation Administration employees and about 70,000 others to work failed Tuesday as Congress headed home until September.

With House members already departed and senators packing their bags for the summer recess, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood pressed hard in a final round of meetings and calls with Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and other key senators.

LaHood implored them to accept a funding extension sent over by the House that contained provisions some senators found unpalatable, but he told them it was the only avenue left that would return people to work and avert the lost of $1.2 billion in ticket tax revenue.

President Obama weighed in Tuesday morning, calling the impasse “another Washington-inflicted wound on America” and demanding that Congress break “that impasse now.”

But the administration’s effort faltered by late afternoon, with Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson saying that the Senate would not allow House Republicans “to jam through a policy” in a stop-gap funding extension bill.


An Alaska Airlines plane takes off past a half-completed 236-foot FAA control tower at Oakland International Airport on July 26 in Oakland, Calif. (Justin Sullivan/GETTY IMAGES)

“We have heard many, many grandiose speeches by members of Congress about creating jobs and putting people to work,” LaHood said. “Well, this is not the way to put people to work, to lay off 70,000 construction workers in the middle of the construction season.”

Americans who fly this summer will see no notable difference as a consequence of the 4,000 furloughs and layoffs of airport construction workers and support personnel. In addition to airport renovation and expansion projects, the furloughs put a halt to work on a complex navigation system that is seen as the future of the aviation system.

The war of nerves between House Republicans and Senate Democrats dragged on for more than two weeks, overshadowed by the more gripping issue of debt limits and potential default.

Funding for both aviation and surface transportation traditionally is wrapped into comprehensive spending packages of several years duration, giving comfort to those who build long-term projects — highways, airports — that the money is committed.

Since the last FAA long-term funding bill expired in 2007, the agency has limped through 20 extensions of its funding while Congress bickered over how to craft a new long-term package.

Most of the quibbling was over minor issues that affect few passengers — the number of flights that should be allowed at Reagan National Airport and the Essential Air Services program that provides $163 million in subsidies for commercial service to small airports.

Bipartisan differences on those two issues gave way in 2009 to the fundamental philosophical differences between Republicans and Democrats.

The arrival of an Obama appointee shifted the balance of power on the three-member National Mediation Board, and shortly thereafter the NMB issued a rule change. It said that union efforts to organize airlines should be decided by a simple majority of ballots cast. Before that ruling, airline unionization had been governed by a rule that said eligible voters in a unionization effort who did not cast a ballot would be recorded as voting against the union.

The new rule would apply to all airlines, but it’s most immediate potential impact would be to Delta Airlines, where unionization efforts have been defeated.

The House passed an FAA reauthorization bill this year that would reverse the NMB ruling. The Senate’s reauthorization bill did not address the issue. Congressional staff members doing leg work prior to a formal conference committee resolved all but about a dozen differences between the two bills.

The NMB ruling proved to be the major sticking point, while the difference over funding for flight subsidies to small airports was a thorny but more negotiable issue.

Negotiations on those differences in the long-term funding packages were complicated when the House sent over a stop-gap extension that eliminated EAS subsidies in a town in Reid’s home state, Nevada, and one in Montana, home state to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D).

The extension bill was the work of House Transportation Committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-Fla.), who said the provisions were intended to spur the Senate to a compromise on the NMB ruling issue.

Instead, the Senate balked and the resulting stalemate caused the FAA’s funding authorization to expire.

Staff writers David Nakamura and Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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