By Zayida Baker

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., occupy opposite sides of the congressional battle over the Federal Aviation Administration. Another FAA shutdown is possible if House and Senate cannot agree by September 16.

Nelson sits on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee and its Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security. Southerland sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and its Aviation Subcommittee.

As a federal agency, the FAA must be authorized to spend money by an act of Congress. Congress usually authorizes agencies for years at a time, but disagreements sometimes favor short-term continuing resolutions, which extend the status quo, over longer-term measures, thus enabling negotiations on a long-term bill in the interim.

The last long-term FAA reauthorization passed in 2003, when Republicans ran Congress, and expired in 2007, when Democrats ran it. Although Democrats controlled both houses from January 2007 to January 2011, they inexplicably passed 17 short-term FAA extensions in that period.

The 112th Congress began in January with a Republican-controlled House and a Democrat-controlled Senate. The Senate, with Nelson’s vote, overwhelmingly passed Chairman John Rockefeller’s, D-W.Va., FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act February 17. Southerland joined in approving Chairman John Mica’s, R-Fla., FAA Reauthorization and Reform Act, which cleared the House April 1 along party lines. Both bills set timetables for upgrading to NextGen, a satellite-based air traffic control system, and both tighten aircraft safety inspections, for example.

Among points of contention, however, is a House measure to reverse the May 2010 National Mediation Board ruling that makes it easier for airline workers to unionize. The Railway Labor Act, which also applies to the airline industry, had required for many decades that, in order for a group to unionize, a majority of all employees must vote in favor. Now unions must win only a majority of votes cast. Senate Democrats call the attempt to restore the old rule “anti-worker,” and Obama promises to veto legislation containing it.

The House bill also winds down the Essential Air Service, which subsidizes commercial flights to small, rural communities, sometimes at thousands of dollars per passenger. The program’s demise, worth $400 million over four years, would be a victory for proponents of the free market and smaller budgets. By contrast, Democrats assert that the Senate bill “strengthen[s] the federal government’s commitment” to EAS. Although it ends subsidies to airports with fewer than 10 passengers per day and those within 90 miles of a hub airport, it establishes a new Office of Rural Aviation to shepherd long-range EAS contracts.

The next step toward a long-term FAA bill is to reconcile House and Senate versions. The Senate has appointed members to serve in a conference for this purpose, but the House has not. Instead, the House passed another short-term FAA extension July 20 with a $1,000-per-person cap on EAS subsidies. (If redirecting a particular group of rural passengers to the next big airport would pose undue geographic hardship, the secretary of transportation can make an exception.)

Mica explained July 25, “If the Senate cannot agree to a simple provision, which it approved earlier this year, to eliminate excessive subsidies between $1,358 and $3,720 per ticket at three airports, then we don’t need to convene a conference meeting.” Rockefeller denies Mica’s account, although these airports were seemingly targeted by Senate cuts, mentioned above, to EAS funding of underused and redundant airports.

With no long- or short-term deal in place, the FAA was partially shut down from July 23 to August 5, during which period over 4,000 nonessential FAA workers were furloughed without pay, and some construction projects under the Airport Improvement Program were suspended. The government also lost $300 million in tax revenue, as airlines were no longer legally required to submit collections to the Airport and Airway Trust Fund.

The shutdown ended when the Senate finally accepted the House’s FAA extension with cuts to EAS—except that Obama-appointed Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood signaled he may claim geographic hardship to get around all of them. Not to be outdone, the Transportation Committee confirms through its press office that House Republicans will revisit these EAS cuts in future talks.

The NMB provision, or union rollback, was absent from the short-term deal, but Republicans still want it in a long-term one. The extension lasts until September 16, making another shutdown possible then. Mica vowed as the last shutdown ended that “every tool at our disposal will be utilized” to ensure fruitful negotiations on a long-term deal.

Everett Wilkinson, head of Florida Tea Party Patriots, does not like the latest FAA deal or EAS subsidies. He wonders “why we need to have air service to areas that it doesn’t financially make sense to have air service to. . . . It’s like the planes to nowhere.” Wilkinson notes that both parties have abused EAS for their constituents’ benefit. “I think we need to cut the program out completely.”

You may wish to contact
Sen. Nelson: (202) 224-5274
Rep. Southerland: (202) 225-5235
Chairman Mica: (202) 225-9466
Chairman Rockefeller: (202) 224-0411

Zayida Baker covers Rep. Steve Southerland and Sen. Bill Nelson for Tea Party Patriots’ Government Accountability Network. She can be reached at zayida.baker@tppjournalism.org.