For 4,000 Federal Aviation Agency workers furloughed for the last two weeks by a congressional stalemate, rescue came Friday, in an exchange between two men that lasted a mere 26 seconds.
“Mr. President,” intoned Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), a Falls Church resident selected for the task by the luck of geography. He asked for “unanimous consent” that the Senate pass a House measure dealing with FAA funding.
“Is there objection?” responded Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), a Baltimore resident chosen to wield the gavel as Senate president for the day.
After pausing for barely a second, Cardin continued. “Hearing no objection, so ordered,” he said.
And with that, Congress sent a stop-gap measure authorizing six weeks of FAA funding to President Obama, who signed the bill later the same day.
The speedy action came after leaders worked out a way to end the FAA standoff that did not require summoning vacationing House members from their fishing cabins or senators from their summer homes. Members left town after passing a hotly contested bill to raise the federal debt ceiling and came under harsh criticism for leaving the FAA matter hanging.
The stalemate had idled 4,000 FAA employees and of thousands more construction contractors.
Under an agreement reached Thursday between party leaders, the temporary measure passed in this ritualistic ceremony, performed for an audience of two other Democratic senators: Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Barbara Boxer of California.
“It just goes to show that the Senate, when it gets its act together, can move very quickly,” Cardin said. “We either operate at blazing speed. Or very, very slowly.”
Congress refers to these lonely mini-sessions, attended by just one or two members, as “pro forma,” and it would surprise no one to learn they result from squabbling.
That’s because the constitution bars either chamber of Congress from adjourning for more than three days without the consent of the other.
So if the House and Senate can’t agree to take a break together, they force each other to regularly gavel in and out of action.
For now, it’s the House that won’t agree to adjourn. By forcing the Senate to formally remain in session, Republicans deprive Obama the ability to make temporary appointments allowed to him while the Senate is recessed.
Democrats in the Senate played the same trick on President Bush.
It is rare that substantive work takes place during pro forma sessions. Generally, temporary presiding officers compete to see who can most quickly gavel the Senate in and out of business. The record belongs to former Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.): .06 seconds.
As a procedural matter, the blink-and-you’d-miss-it end of the weeks-long FAA stand-off occurred because Cardin and Webb jointly engineered Senate adoption of a bill previously passed by the House on the issue.
The two could pass the measure alone because, simply by failing to show up, their colleagues offered their “unanimous consent” to the bill. In the Senate, all manner of legislative items are agreed to by the unanimous consent of absent members. Pretty much everything else requires a super-majority vote of 60.
As a practical matter, the resolution came because the Democratic-led Senate essentially caved to House demands on a provision in the legislation.
The House bill was intentionally designed to antagonize Senate Democrats with language that would cut subsidized air service to three small airports located in the home states of Senate leaders. But senators decided to pass the measure anyway after Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood agreed to grant waivers to continue the subsidies.
The temporary solution does nothing to address an underlying argument between Democrats and Republicans about whether a bill to provide long-term funding for the FAA would restrict airline workers’ collective bargaining rights. The two sides will pick up that fight when they return in September.
Similar fights have forced Congress to approve a series of short-term funding measures for the FAA over the past four years. In other areas of government, such fights have led Congress to adopt a patchwork of temporary funding measures in place of routine annual budgeting.
“This dysfunctionality of the Congress is a serious concern,” said Lee H. Hamilton, a Democrat who served in the House for 34 years and now directs the Center on Congress at Indiana University. “The process has just broken down.”
For Dieter Thigpen, an FAA engineering supervisor, Friday’s quick resolution did little to improve the sorry impression Congress has created in recent days. During the stalemate, Thigpen, 49, was forced to apply for unemployment benefits for the first time in his life.
“It makes you wonder,” he said. “If they could do it like that, why couldn’t they do that before they sent us home for two weeks?”