Congress creeps closer to FAA shutdown

C.J. Ciaramella Contributor
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Congress crept one step closer to a possible shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration after House Republicans pushed through a funding bill Wednesday in spite of opposition from Senate leadership.

The two bodies are deadlocked over a temporary extension of a long-stalled FAA reauthorization bill, which funds the federal agency. The current extension expires at midnight Friday.

At the core of the disagreement is funding for the Essential Air Service program, which provides federal subsidies to maintain certain rural air routes. The FAA legislation passed by the Senate cuts EAS funding for service to 10 airports.

The House extension eliminates subsidies for air service to an additional three airports and caps federal subsidies at $1,000 per passenger.

Democratic senators have vowed to not adopt the House bill, which passed Wednesday, 243-177.

The reauthorization bill originally expired in 2007 and has been temporarily extended 21 times since then — “old enough to drink” in the words of West Virginia Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall.

Florida Republican Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which rolled out the House extension on July 15, argued that some of the subsidies were “obscene when our country is in a debt crisis and on the verge of disaster.”

According to numbers from the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, setting the subsidy cap at $1,000 per passenger saves $4.1 million on an annual basis. The current top-three per passenger subsidies were for air service to Ely, Nevada ($3,720), Alamogordo/Holloman AFB, New Mexico ($1,563) and Glendive, Montana ($1,358).

Since the EAS program began in 1978, its budget has ballooned from $7 million to $200 million.

If the extension is not passed, air traffic controllers and other critical staff would not be furloughed, but Democrats warned that a shut-down would result in 4,000 employees laid-off and all capital construction programs halted.

Democrat Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia assailed the changes, saying, “The House has demonstrated that it is not serious about getting a comprehensive bill done. The Senate will not consider passing an FAA extension with policy riders that hurt small communities across the country. By sending over a bill that can’t pass the Senate, we risk shutting down our nation’s aviation system.”

Mica shot back in a press release shortly after the vote.

“Every ticket at the Ely, Nevada airport is underwritten $3,720 by federal taxpayers,” he said. “It is now up to the Senate to pass this bill and not shut down FAA programs over a little provision that eliminates huge government subsidies to just three small airports.”

There is also sharp disagreement over a long-term reauthorization of the bill originally approved in April. Republicans included a provision overturning a National Mediation Board rule regarding union organizing, but Senate Democrats have balked at the idea. This led Oregon Democratic Representative Peter DeFazio to accuse Republicans on Wednesday of “anti-labor fervor” and “hatred of working people and their right to organize.”

In a letter sent to Mica Tuesday, Rockefeller accused Republicans of inserting the EAS provision into the bill in retaliation for Democrats’ opposition to the labor provision.