Partial FAA shutdown looms over debate

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) might be forced to shut down some of its operations if Congress does not pass a funding extension by Friday.

The Republican-controlled House passed such an extension Wednesday, but Democrats who control the Senate are opposed to certain provisions of the bill, putting Senate passage in jeopardy.

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The House bill passed on a 243-177 vote in which 13 Democrats voted with Republicans. 

The GOP bill would extend airport and airway taxes that help fund the FAA until Sept. 16. Without the extension, these taxes will expire on Friday and the FAA might curtail certain operations to meet the shortfall.

The last FAA authorization bill was approved in 2004 and expired in 2007. Since then, the FAA has been operating on short-term extensions. If this extension passes, it will be the 21st since 2007.

Senate Democrats and the White House have called for a “clean extension” bill for FAA funding, saying that differences between the parties on how to reform the FAA should be worked out in broader legislation.

However, in the House bill, Republicans included language that would prohibit federal subsidies for passenger airfare at 10 small airports because they are within 90 miles of medium-size or large airports. The bill would also ban federal funding to three airports where passenger fares receive more than $1,000 per ticket in federal subsidies.

The 10 small airports that would lose their subsidies because they are too close to medium or large airports are in Athens, Ga.; Morgantown, W.Va.; Jamestown, N.Y.; Bradford, Pa.; Hagerstown, Md.; Jonesboro, Ark.; Johnstown, Pa.; Franklin/Oil City, Pa.; Lancaster, Pa.; and Jackson, Tenn.

The three airports that would have subsidies cut off because the per-ticket subsidy exceeds $1,000 are in Ely, Nev., Alamogordo/Holloman AFB, N.M.; and Glendive, Mont. Subsidies there are $3,720, $1,563 and $1,358, respectively.

The subsidies have been granted in the past because certain remote airports, although deemed essential to the rural areas they serve, do not have enough traffic to make them self-sufficient. The GOP bill would still grant the subsidies to small airports located farther than 90 miles from larger airports. 

Alaska, due to its size and its many remote areas, is exempt from having its airport subsidies cut.

Senate Democrats object to the added provisions in the House bill and have demanded that the House send the Senate a “clean” extension. 

On Wednesday, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) said Republicans would not change their bill.

House Republicans have pointed out that the 10 small airports affected by the 90-mile rule, which is subject to waivers, are also in the Senate FAA reauthorization bill, so that the only provision Senate Democrats are objecting to is the one regarding the three per-ticket subsidy airports.

Mica said Senate Democrats would be blamed for an FAA shutdown if the Senate does not accept the bill, and openly talked about the chances of a partial shutdown.

“Certainly I don’t want the FAA to close down at midnight on Friday night,” Mica said. “And that won’t happen. Essential services will continue; air traffic controllers will be at their job. There may be some people furloughed.

“But it is not my fault,” he continued. “It will be the responsibility of the other body who does not take this up and pass it. They will be furloughing people and putting people out of jobs.”

The White House said Wednesday that the provisions added to the bill by the GOP should wait for a long-term bill. 

“The administration strongly supports passage of a clean extension of Federal Aviation Administration programs, as the Congress has done 20 times without controversy, in order to allow bipartisan, bicameral negotiations to continue on a full reauthorization,” the White House said in a statement of policy.

Negotiations between the House and Senate over a larger bill to fund the FAA for multiple years, which FAA officials say they desperately need, broke down after several months. 

The chambers’ competing versions of the bill are far apart. The Senate measure would provide $34.5 billion over two years, while the House would provide $59 billion over four years. Additionally, the House measure includes provisions that would make it harder for airline and railroad employees to unionize, drawing a veto threat from President Obama.

The administration on Wednesday named several programs at FAA that would be jeopardized if the extension is not passed by Friday.

“Without timely passage of a clean extension, all of FAA’s capital accounts (Grants-in-Aid for Airports, Facilities and Equipment, and Research, Engineering, and Development) would be shut down, and approximately 4,000 employees would be furloughed. FAA’s ability to award new grants, including for infrastructure upgrades at airports across the country, as well as to move forward with vital testing and implementation of the Next Generation air traffic control system, would come to a stop,” the White House said.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said lawmakers should save their disagreements for another day. 

“Congress needs to stop playing games, work out its differences and pass a clean FAA bill immediately. There is no excuse for not getting this done,” LaHood said in a statement released by the Department of Transportation. “Important programs and construction projects are at stake. This stalemate must be resolved.”

Transportation Committee ranking member Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) said Republicans should be blamed for failing to appoint conferees to reconcile House and Senate versions of a longer-term FAA extension. 

Democrats oppose House Republican language that would make it harder to form air and rail unions, but Rahall said nonetheless that conferees should be appointed.

“What is the Republican leadership waiting for?” he asked.

Mica rejected these and other arguments during House debate, and said Democrats need to choose between allowing a partial FAA shutdown and accepting House language limiting subsidies to 13 airports.