The Senate, with the federal debt crisis resolved, is expected to leave by the end of the week for its August recess. The House has already left. Unless the Senate accepts the House bill, lost revenue from uncollected airline ticket taxes could exceed $1.2 billion before lawmakers return to work a month later, senators said.
The FAA's long-term operating authority expired in 2007. Since then, Congress has been unable to agree on a long-term funding plan. The agency has continued to operate under a series of 20 short-term extensions.
The latest extension expired at midnight on July 22 after Senate Democrats rejected a temporary extension bill passed by the House that contained the subsidy cuts. Senate Republicans blocked a Democratic extension that didn't include cuts.
The lost ticket tax revenue is costing the government an estimated $200 million a week. The FAA has furloughed nearly 4,000 employees and issued stop-work orders on more than 200 construction projects.
Air traffic controllers have remained on the job. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has vowed that safety won't be compromised and travelers won't be inconvenienced.
Three times in the last 10 days, senators' efforts to pass a bill to end the shutdown without making air service subsidy cuts have been blocked by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. Each time, Hatch has focused his remarks on the labor provision.
"I've been asked by our leadership to make these objections," Hatch explained Monday night. "What is important here – and it's not some itty-bitty little thing – is that you have labor regulators out of control."
To end the shutdown, he said, the Senate must agree to the House's labor provision. Then, the shutdown "would be solved in a nanosecond," he said.
The labor provision would overturn a National Mediation Board rule approved last year that allows airline and railroad employees to form a union by a simple majority of those voting. Under the old rule, workers who didn't vote were treated as "no" votes.
Republicans complain that the new rule reverses 75 years of precedent to favor labor unions. Democrats and union officials say the change puts airline and railroad elections under the same democratic rules required for unionizing all other companies.
The White House warned in March that President Barack Obama would veto an FAA bill containing the labor provision.
So, I will recap a couple of important points here.
• The FAA has been operating without a full authorization budget since 2007. They have been operating on a series of extensions that are good for some period of time, a year or less. This is because the Republicans won’t sign a full reauthorization bill until they get everything they want. (Sound familiar?)
• Now, the Republicans won’t even sign a short-term extension of the FAA’s budget without including several provisions that the Democrats really, really don’t like. (Sound familiar?)
• The one provision included by the Republicans that most people are talking about has to do with government support of rural airports designated as important but don’t earn enough money on their own. However, the big kicker is the one discussed above regarding changes to election laws. The Republicans want to make it much, much more difficult for railroad and aviation employees to unionize. The Democrats really can’t accept that, but the FAA is being held hostage until the Dems capitulate. (Sound familiar?)
• Without an operation budget, the FAA cannot collect fees from airlines and airports to the tune of about $200 million a week. All the people in the FAA who get their salary paid from this pot of money have been furloughed. All the contractors and subcontractors throughout the country who depend on getting paid by the FAA for work done on airports and other safety related projects are also out of work.
• After their hard work on getting almost total surrender from the Democrats during the debt ceiling debate, the Republicans in the House have decided to adjourn for the summer until sometime in August without giving the FAA an operating budget. Which means this mess we have now is going to continue for at least two more months.
I find this absolutely unconscionable. During a time of very high unemployment and also during a time when the Republican Party has declared that the federal debt was THE absolute most important thing that must be addressed, they are holding the FAA hostage until their demands are met. They are creating very real safety concerns, all because they do not like unions. The money that would fund the rural airports would have been able to be paid out of the missing revenue in a week!
There is one thing that I don’t think has really been emphasized in the media yet about this issue. There are about 4000 FAA employees on furlough right now. There are a small number of employees within that 4000 that are critical to the safety of the flying public. They travel extensively, going around to airports around the country and inspecting the facilities and supporting infrastructure, such as the transmitters for the Instrument Landing Systems. These are critical functions. These people have been asked by the FAA Administrator to continue working, without pay, and to put all their travel expenses on the credit cards, which are in their own names. The FAA employees get the bill, the FAA doesn’t. These people are dedicated enough to continue with their jobs, even though our totally screwed up government has decided that the FAA can be used as just one more hostage in their new way of “governing.”
The Republicans don’t care about unemployment. They apparently don’t care they are creating the potential for a very real safety issue. This isn’t democracy. I don’t know what it is, but it isn’t democracy.
I also know that when there is another commercial aviation accident or serious incident in this country, there will continue to be calls for the FAA to be more involved, that we aren’t providing enough oversight of the industry, and that we are too “cozy” with the industry we are regulating. There may be some validity in some of those arguments, but I think the despicable actions by the Republicans and by John Mica in particular have undercut any criticisms that they and the people who support them could point our way. They are saying that the safety of the commercial aviation system in this country is NOT a priority. Making it more difficult for some industry workers to unionize is much more important than aviation safety.
I don’t know what those people who are continuing to work without pay and who are putting their travel expenses (which are significant) on credit cards with their personal names on them will do if this continues.
Update: Here's more from Washington Monthly and Crooks and Liars.