By Keith Laing
President Obama signed a $63.6 billion funding bill for the Federal Aviation Administration Tuesday, bringing to an end a years-long fight over aviation funding that became engulfed in labor disputes.
After a year of debate — and a two-week partial shutdown of the FAA — the House and Senate approved a multi-year funding bill for the beleaguered agency for the first time since its last authorization expired in 2007, and the White House said Tuesday that Obama signed the measure.
The FAA has long planned to switch the air traffic control system from radar technology that has been used since World War II, but the agency said it needs consistent funding to develop the system, which would cost about $22 billion through 2025.
FAA supporters applauded Obama for signing the bill Tuesday, saying it was a big deal for the aviation industry.
“This is a great day for our National Airspace System and we thank the President and Congress for bringing this long process to a successful conclusion," National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi said in a statement.
"The FAA bill creates jobs, restores a fair collective bargaining process for tens of thousands of dedicated aviation safety professionals and provides for a safer and more efficient air traffic control system," he said.
The main holdup on the FAA bill had been union election rules for transportation workers that applied to those who were covered under the Railway Labor Act. Republicans in the House attempted to overturn a rule adopted in 2010 by the National Mediation Board (NMB) to force companies to stop counting non-votes in union elections as "no" votes, evoking a veto threat from President Obama.
The stalemate lasted from the House passage of the bill in May 2011 until January, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) negotiated a compromise that was approved by both chambers. Under the agreement, the percentage of a company’s workforce that would have to be in favor of a vote on unionization would be increased from 35 percent to 50 percent, and the National Mediation Board would have to hold public hearings before making future rule changes in lieu of requiring them to be reviewed by judges.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.), whom many Democrats blamed for the FAA shutdown last year, praised the signing of the appropriations bill for the agency Tuesday.
But just as quickly, Mica blamed Democrats for the years-long delay.
"For four years, Democrats in control of Congress left the nation’s aviation system in the lurch by failing to pass a long-term bill to reform FAA programs and set national aviation policy and priorities,” Mica said.
By contrast, Mica said “today we have in place sound multi-year policies that reform FAA programs, eliminate expensive ticket subsidies, modernize our air traffic control system, improve airport infrastructure, reduce air traffic delays, and create jobs."
The White House was quiet Tuesday about the president signing the bill, releasing a statement that said only that Obama had signed H.R. 658 and another bill into law. During the FAA shutdown last summer, President Obama gave a speech in the Rose Garden about the agency's funding situation, but some unions have expressed unhappiness with the labor election provisions in the appropriations measure for the agency even after the compromise.
—This post was updated with new information at 5:31 p.m.