With Saturday Deadline For Reauthorizing FAA Approaching, Congress Is Still Playing Politics

You likely wouldn’t fly on a commercial jet if you knew the pilots up front weren’t getting paid because their company didn’t have the money to spend, right? But would you fly if you knew the air traffic controllers who manage 87,000 flights a day weren’t getting paid because their agency is broke?

Come Sunday that could become a very real question if both Houses of Congress fail pass a bill extending the Federal Aviation Administration’s authority to operate and spend federal money – and even to exist, formally – by midnight Saturday, Eastern time. Now, you might think that Congress surely would never let that happen, but you’d be wrong. It did happen just six years ago in 2011, when political wrangling prevented the passage of an earlier FAA reauthorization bill.

Air Traffic Controllers at work in the tower at Miami International Airport in March. If Congress doesn’t approve by Saturday night a six-month extension of the legislation reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration these and other controllers around the nation will have to continue working without pay until Congress can pass such a bill. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

This year, as distressingly seems to have become standard operating procedure under that big white dome in Washington, Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on how much lard and other measures to bundle into what rational citizens would expect to be a very straightforward piece of legislation with the sole purpose of keeping air travel and air travelers safe.

Heck, this year Republicans can’t even agree with other Republicans on how the nation’s air traffic control system should be operated.

On Monday, House Democrats blocked a bill that would have (pending similar approval by the Senate) kept the FAA operating for another six months. Though Republicans control the House the measure was being moved by a special fast track parliamentary maneuver that required two-thirds approval to pass. It came up well short after Democrat House leaders instructed their members to vote “no.”

Why?

Because the bill also included an amendment giving significant tax relief to residents of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands impacted by the recent hurricanes. The Democrats support that idea but say the amendment contained in the FAA extension bill doesn’t go nearly far enough in meeting the need. They’re also opposed to an amendment that would encourage the growth of private flood insurance markets, and extend several expiring public health programs, but not the popular Children’s Health Insurance Program.

On Tuesday, the Republican-controlled House Rules Committee re-jiggered the proposal a bit to include more Hurricane relief dollars and a few other goodies and set the measure for a re-vote Thursday. Assuming it passes – which is probable but not a cinch – the Senate also would need to pass the measure before Saturday expires, else the FAA will run out of money and authority. And the measure will need 60 votes there to pass, which means at least eight Democrat senators will have to buck their leadership to vote with Senate Republicans. It also means that the Senate, known for its glacial pace of decision making, would have to move unusually and, for it, painfully fast.

If the FAA Extension fails in either chamber, the agency will be forced to do what it did in 2011: send everyone but “essential” employees home. Excluding air traffic controllers that’s pretty much everyone, including the hundreds of inspectors who work daily to ensure that airlines and private aircraft owners are keeping their aircraft properly maintained and meeting the thousands of safety and maintenance requirements for every aircraft that flies in the United States.

Controllers would be kept on as “essential employees” but would not be paid for their work – if they pass a payday while the FAA remains “unauthorized.” Eventually they, plus all those non-essential employees who would be sent home, likely would receive back pay for the period when the FAA lacked authorization. That’s what happened in 2011. But important work would be left undone for some undetermined period and the agency’s entire workforce would be thrown into upheaval and, perhaps in some cases, short term financial distress.

Of course, this whole drama could have been avoided entirely if Congress could reach agreement on an actual law – not a temporary extension – reauthorizing the FAA’s authority and federal money-spending ability. But that hasn’t happened since 2012, and even then it took multiple short-term extensions and a brief period when the FAA’s authority was allowed to lapse, at least technically. That 2012 reauthorization bill was only good for four years. But last year, rather than do the hard work of settling differences and passing another actual FAA reauthorization bill, Congress passed an 18-month extension. That’s the measure that expires Saturday night.

There are a number of policy differences between Democrats and Republicans and, as noted, among Republicans themselves that will have to be hashed out by the end of next March, when the FAA Extension now up for vote would expire (assuming it passes at all). And that’s far from being a sure thing.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) strongly supports spinning off the Air Traffic Control Organization from the FAA to a federally-chartered non-profit corporation, arguing that the operational function of enabling safe aircraft operations should be separated from the regulatory and enforcement function of government, as it already has been in more than 60 nations, including every other major developed nation. Shuster and his supporters say such a “privatization” or “corporatization” would free the ATC organization from the innovation-stifling…

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