Dana Milbank
Dana Milbank
Opinion Writer

The FAA shutdown and the new rules of Washington

Congressman John Mica, the Florida Republican blamed for single-handedly shutting down the Federal Aviation Administration, sounded like a beaten man when he called me Thursday evening.

The usually biting chairman of the House transportation committee spoke with remorse about the standoff, which put 74,000 people on furlough or out of work, delayed airport-safety projects and cost hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.

Dana Milbank

Dana Milbank writes a regular column on politics.

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“I’ve had a brutal week, getting beat up by everybody,” Mica told me, minutes after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced a deal that would end the shutdown and avoid the cuts to regional air service that Mica wanted.

“I didn’t know it would cause this much consternation,” Mica said. “Now I’ve just got to get the broom and the shovel and clean up the mess.” Switching metaphors, he said he wanted “to unclog the toilet, but it backed up. So I don’t know what to do, what to say.”

One thing he’s going to do is make amends.  He said he would introduce legislation Friday to pay FAA workers for their furlough days. “We just want to cheer all those workers who have been left out on a limb by this,” he explained.

Mica’s experience shows the high-risk nature of business in the new Washington, where even routine issues like FAA funding can become conflagrations. With no goodwill between the two parties, or the two chambers, ordinary disagreements mushroom into governing crises, with unpredictable results.

In the debt-limit standoff, Democrats capitulated to most Republican demands to avoid a default. In the FAA confrontation, Republicans pursued similar brinkmanship — but this time Democrats resisted, let the shutdown happen and, at least in Mica’s view, won the fight.

Mica started out with a sensible aim: He wanted to clean up years of messy funding for the FAA. Lawmakers hadn’t been able to agree on issues such as rural-airport subsidies and landing slots at Reagan National, so they kept the agency going with 20 stop-gap funding bills since 2007.

But Mica overreached. Letting his anti-labor ideology take over, he tried to use the FAA bill to overturn a decision by the National Mediation Board to rescind an old rule that had made it unusually difficult for airline workers to organize. Delta Air Lines furiously lobbied Congress to intervene.

Mica knew Senate Democrats would resist, so he tried to create a bargaining chit: He drafted plans to cut funds for small airports in the home states of Reid (Nev.) and Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.), chairman of the Senate transportation panel.

The Floridian publicly admitted his ruse. “It’s just a tool to try to motivate some action” on the labor rule, he told a group of airport executives last month, according to Aviation Daily. “I didn’t plan it to be this national issue,” he told me.

Senate Democrats, seizing on Mica’s admission that the bill was a “tool,” refused to deal. They let the shutdown happen and railed against Mica after lawmakers left for recess.

Reid accused him of taking “hostages.” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer pointed out that the shutdown cost taxpayers more than the program Mica tried to cut. Privately, Mica’s GOP colleagues harshly criticized him.

The Orlando Sentinel, near Mica’s district, took the congressman to task and said it was “pathetic” that “members of Congress now are enjoying their summer vacations, while some essential FAA inspectors are working without pay.”

On Thursday, Democrats announced a plan to reopen the FAA and said they would use waivers from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to avoid Mica’s rural airport cuts. Mica, pronouncing himself thwarted, said he was stunned that Democrats took Republicans “by the short hairs,” as he put it. “Quite honestly we did not expect that.”

They should have. The 10-term lawmaker was operating under archaic rules. “In our business, you use your legislative tools . . . and put a little leverage on it,” he said. “How else do I do it? Am I going to send them a bouquet?”

But Mica, as much as anybody, created a culture of distrust, where staking out bargaining positions leads not to compromise but to warfare. And now he’s surprised?

“People don’t have to get so personal,” he said with a sigh. “A lot of people hate me now and think I’m the worst thing in the world for what I did.” It’s “this sort of gotcha,” he said, “that’s changed the dynamics of people working more effectively together.”

Hopefully he’ll remember that the next time he sticks it to the other side.

Dana Milbank will be online to chat with readers at noon. Submit your questions before or during the chat.

danamilbank@washpost.com

 
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