By Keith Laing - 07/27/11 08:09 PM EDT
Democrats on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee brought in employees of the Federal Aviation Administration to make the case for ending a congressional impasse on funding for the partially shutdown agency, saying money not allocated to the FAA was going instead to airlines’ profits.
Ralph Randall of Baltimore, an FAA program management analyst and member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, said the work stoppage forced by the expiration of the FAA funding legislation was hitting him in his wallet.
“It’s made me really have to focus on … what it means for my savings, my retirement,” Randall, who said he has worked at the FAA since the infamous strikes that resulted in President Ronald Reagan firing the nation’s air traffic controllers in 1981, told The Hill on Wednesday.
Randall is one of about 4,000 FAA employees who were furloughed after the last appropriations bill for the agency expired last Friday at midnight. The House and Senate could not agree by then on a new measure, and remained gridlocked this week.
At issue is a provision in the House version of a short-term extension of the FAA funding bill that eliminates some subsidies for rural air service through the Essential Air Service program. A longer-term bill has been bogged down by a House effort to undo rules on unionization of railroad and airline employees that would make it harder for them to vote to collectively bargain.
The agency has not had a long-term authorization bill since the last measure that was passed in 2004 expired in 2007.
On Wednesday, Democrats said the shutdown of the FAA really was about the state of the divided government in Washington.
“This is part of the Republican plan to make things as bad as they can looking forward to the presidential election,” Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said during a news conference at the Capitol.
Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) said the issue is “parallel to the debt ceiling.” He is not a member of the Transportation Committee, but has plenty of FAA workers at Washington’s Reagan National and Dulles International airports in his Northern Virginia district.
“The debt ceiling was raised  times under Ronald Reagan. We’ve gotten 20 clean FAA bills,” Moran said. “This is a warning to the country about how dysfunctional this Congress and its majority leaders are.”
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-Washington, D.C.) said the partial shutdown was allowing airlines to keep taxes that normally would be paid into the Aviation Trust Fund, which funds the positions that were furloughed over the weekend. Some airlines are raising ticket price to maximize their profit margins during the furlough, Norton said Wednesday.
“We are now in the fifth day of what might be called a congressional strike against the Federal Aviation Administration,” Norton said. “As the minority party in the House, we cannot get our clean bill to the floor, but we can let the 4,000 FAA employees, a quarter of whom are from the national capital region, and the nearly 90,000 airport construction workers nationwide, also disproportionately from this region, understand that at least some of us are still working to get them back to work.
“And we can let airline passengers know that we are as outraged as they are that some airlines have raised fares in order to pocket money that would have been collected as taxes from passengers for airport infrastructure and FAA employees and programs left unauthorized by the failure to pass an extension bill.”
Norton said it would be “outrageous” if an agreement were made on the federal debt ceiling before one was reached on the FAA.
“We don’t need to wait until August 2nd,” to put FAA workers back to work, she said.
Democrats on the House Transportation Committee announced Tuesday that they had filed a “clean” bill for the temporary FAA extension.
But committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) said Wednesday that Democratic outrage over the bill was disingenuous.
“How could they attack me?” he said on the floor of the House. “For four years they controlled this place with incredible numbers, huge numbers to do anything in the House, huge numbers to do anything in the Senate — four years.
“I authored the last FAA authorization in 2003 that expired in 2007, and they sat on it and never did anything,” he continued. “They did 17 extensions. They forced us to do three. And I’m telling you, I’ve had it.”
Mica said Democrats in the Senate could easily bring FAA workers like Randall back to work. All they have to do, he said, is pass the bill that was approved by the House last week.
“So for three airports where their passengers are being paid a subsidy of $1,500 to $3,700 — at three airports — they’re closing down the FAA,” Mica said. “They’ve had it since last Wednesday, and they’ve sat on it."
Mica’s counterpart on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) took to the floor of his chamber Wednesday to say it was the Republican position that was untenable.
“This is not policy. This is pettiness,” Rockefeller said Wednesday. “It’s the typical ‘my way or the highway’ that has become the mantra of House Republicans.”
Rockefeller said Mica was doing the bidding of Delta Airlines in pushing for the labor provision that has bogged down the long-term FAA bill. The short-term bill is being held up out of spite for that reason, he said.
“I wish I could understand why the desires of one company … matters more than thousands who have been furloughed,” he said.
“You don’t give into blackmail, because the next time the demand is going to be bigger,” DeFazio said during the press conference.
The standoff between the parties left Randall wondering about the entire Congress.
“It’s made me really have to focus on who are the people representing us,” he told The Hill.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood agreed, writing in an op-ed Wednesday in the New York Daily News that it was time for lawmakers to put partisanship aside to end the FAA furloughs.
“I’ve been a Republican for my entire life — in the Illinois legislature, as a congressional staffer and as a seven-term congressman,” he wrote. “I accepted President Obama’s invitation to serve our country because I believe that some things are more important than partisanship.
“Now is the moment to put nation ahead of party. Thousands of jobs, the best aviation system in the world and the United States’s economic recovery hang in the balance.”
There was little evidence Wednesday of lawmakers considering taking LaHood’s advice.