THE ADMINISTRATION has scored notable successes in persuading Congress to reduce aid for social programs. Its record in trimming benefits for well-heeled private sector interests is not so impressive.
Airport user-fee proposals were grounded this week when House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Daniel Rostenkowski discovered that only one Republican member of his committee would support even a compromise proposal.
Members point to the substantial surplus now residing in the airport and airways trust fund as grounds for opposing even a restoration of the previous level of user taxes and fees, much less the substantial increases that the administration is seeking. That surplus, however, owes its existence to the fact that Congress has reserved most of the trust fund for capital investments, leaving the general taxpayer to pick up more than three-quarters of the $2.4 billion annual cost of operating the airways.
The corporate jets landing in Washington generally bear a load of executives eager to explain to Congress that a fair and efficient marketplace means that goods and services should be priced at their true economic cost--no more and no less. Yet the owners and users of private aircraft--the least efficient airway users because of their small passenger loads--now pay less than 15 percent of their share of the system's cost.
The airways subsidy is unfair as well as inefficient. Any account executive for an aviation magazine will be glad to assure you that the average user of either commercial or private aircraft has an income much higher than that of the average taxpayer who is subsidizing his flight. Since both fairness and efficiency support the administration's plan to make users pay most of the cost of their benefits, one might expect that a substantial coalition of liberals and conservatives would support the measure.
Congressional indifference to the idea arises from simple self-interest. The aviation lobby--particularly that part that represents the manufacturers and users of private planes--spares no expense in making its interests known on the Hill. It finds a ready audience among the many congressmen who are big users of the airways, particularly those who prefer the amenities of private air transportation.
The idea of making direct users pay a larger part of the cost of government services is one of the most clearly defensible parts of the administration's economic program. If the president cannot muster support for even these reforms, he will find it increasingly difficult to regain momentum for his larger strategy of budget cuts.