Lawmakers allowed funding for the FAA to expire July 23, leaving 4,000 agency workers on furlough and 70,000 people in construction-related jobs out of work, possibly until September, when Congress will reconvene.
On Wednesday, party leaders blamed each other for the deadlock, and President Obama said Congress had “decided to play politics” and put the the nation’s fragile economic recovery at risk. He said he expects a resolution of the issue by the end of the week.
But a handful of furloughed workers discovered that the chances for a quick solution were dim when they trekked to the Capitol and had trouble finding anyone to hear their pleas. The House left town on Monday, and most senators were gone by Wednesday.
“We’re staring at a possible six weeks without pay, and they’ll all get nice suntans on their vacations,” said Dan Stefko, a furloughed FAA engineer who flew in from Pittsburgh.
“Nobody believed they would actually walk away from this,” added Bob Aitken, an engineer from Chicago, as the group made the rounds, meeting with a handful of lawmakers and staff members.
Though the impasse may cost $1.2 billion in lost ticket-tax revenue if it stretches into September, it will have no apparent impact on air travel. Air traffic controllers are remaining on the job.
Unions at heart of dispute
With most of the American public emerging from debt-ceiling-debate overload, the facts of the funding stalemate seemed bewildering. Unlike the debt talks, in which trillions of dollars were in play, the FAA funding has been stalled by matters that hold greater importance to members of Congress than to the majority of the flying public.
Primary among them is a partisan split over the rules that govern union efforts to organize airline workers.
There have been 20 short-term funding bills for the FAA since September 2007. Even when Democrats controlled both chambers, agreement on long-term funding was elusive. When the Republican-led House passed the 21st extension last month, it tacked on provisions about rural airports intended to cause discomfort for Senate Democrats.
This, said House transportation committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-Fla.), was done in the hope that an unpalatable extension might motivate senators to settle the differences between the long-term FAA funding bills passed by the House and the Senate this year.
But the Senate balked, demanding a “clean” bill.
That brought to the fore the more contentious issue: The House’s long-term funding bill seeks to undo a new rule that makes it easier for unions to organize airline employees.
It is on that issue — which is not even included in the House extension bill — that Mica, Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) and other House Republicans are standing fast.