Lawmakers' FAA spending fight comes to an end, but likely only temporarily

The partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration ended this week with great fanfare, but immediately after the bill was passed it became clear that the fight over the agency's funding was far from over.

The Senate on Friday ended a nearly two-week furlough for 4,000 FAA workers by passing an appropriations bill for the FAA. But the measure only funds the agency until Sept. 16.

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After that, the House and Senate will be right back where they started: deeply divided on a long-term bill to fully fund the agency.

The chambers differ on how long the bill should be, how much it should cost and most controversially, on a labor provision in the version that passed the House that would undo rules to make it easier for transportation workers to unionize.

During the fight over the short-term bill that gripped Washington this week with the fracas over the federal debt ceiling off the table, Democrats accused House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) of adding cuts to rural airport subsidies in retaliation for Democrats objecting to the labor provisions.



But after the Senate passed his bill on Friday under a deal to have Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood void the cuts, Mica was completely unapologetic.


“The American people have witnessed firsthand how truly difficult it is to bring about even modest reforms and cut wasteful programs in Washington, like $3,720 individual airline ticket subsidies," Mica said in a statement about the temporary fix. “After an absolutely unnecessary two-week delay, and after having imposed hardship on FAA employees, airport construction workers and the American economy, the partial shutdown of our aviation industry will end."

It looked for a time as though the FAA would be shut down for the entire length of Congress’ traditional August recess over a bill to fund the FAA for just a few weeks. But when lawmakers return from their breaks, Mica wants them to pass a longer bill for the beleaguered agency.

However this spring, negotiations on the longer-term bill were virtually engulfed by a contentious debate on a House attempt to undo rules adopted by the National Mediation Board last year to make it easier for transportation workers to unionize.


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The provision drew a veto threat from President Obama, leading to the short-term deal that expired July 22.

When that bill was set to expire, Mica attached cuts to flight service at rural airports he said would save $16 million. The Senate had agreed to cut some rural subsidies in its own FAA funding bill, but Mica’s short-term fix added airports in Nevada, Montana and West Virginia.

Noting that the three new airports were in the districts of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), Democrats accused Mica of seeking political retribution, launching the impasse that led to the two-week shutdown.

But Mica made clear Friday he was willing to play political hardball again when the issue comes back up in September.

“It’s vital that the House and Senate leaderships and respective committees, in the next several weeks, work to ensure the end of a four-and-a-half-year delay in passing a long-term FAA bill so there will be no need for a 22nd extension," he said. “If the Senate refuses to negotiate on the few remaining issues, they can be assured that every tool at our disposal will be utilized to ensure a long-term bill is signed into law.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has backed Mica up, saying this week that “House Republicans remain committed to Chairman Mica’s vision to modernize our air traffic control system.

“We have had enough FAA extensions, 21, over the last 4 ½ years, and it’s time for Senate Democrats to get serious, stop playing Washington insider games and compromise,” Cantor said in a statement released by his office Friday.

However, Senate Majority Leader Reid also echoed the rhetoric that quickly escalated this week as the FAA shutdown gripped Washington, sharply criticizing Mica's stance Friday.

“Republicans like Rep. John Mica are already threatening to force these 74,000 Americans out of their jobs again when this extension expires on Sept. 16," he said in a statement released by his office. "With millions of Americans struggling, we cannot afford for Republicans to hold common-sense jobs bills hostage to the Tea Party's ideological agenda. I hope Republicans will come to their senses and put the interests of the middle class ahead of the Tea Party and favors for airline CEOs.”

Reid and other Democrats have said Mica is pushing for the labor provision at the behest of Atlanta, Ga.-based Delta Airlines, which has had several union elections end up being reviewed by federal officials.

Even as he applauded the end of the FAA shutdown before lawmakers return to work in September, Reid made the case again going into the weekend.

"The hard-working men and women affected by this standoff should never have been furloughed in the first place," he said. "They were out of work for two weeks because Republicans were holding their jobs hostage to try and jam through a favor for the CEO of one airline." 

The shutdown of the FAA was projected to have cost the federal government $30 million a day, as the agency was not authorized to collect taxes on airline ticket sales for nearly two weeks.

Despite the celebrations about the end of the impasse that closed the week, the agency has not had a long-term funding bill since 2007.

Among the many holdups are the fact that in addition to the labor provision, the House and Senate disagree on what the length of the FAA authorization bill should be, and how much it should cost. In May, the House passed a four-year bill for the agency, while the Senate approved a two-year.

The chambers are also a couple billion apart on funding. The House passed a $59 billion, which would average just under $15 billion per year for the FAA. By contrast, the Senate passed a shorter bill that spent $34 billion, an average of $17 billion.

Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA) President Greg Principato said it was important to the aviation industry that Congress work out those differences soon.

“It’s been frustrating for four years to have 21 extensions,” he said in an interview with The Hill. “I think the key thing we found out (in the temporary shutdown) is that we can’t let it happen again. There is a legislative process. There are issues to be resolved. Use it to resolve them, but you can’t shut the place down.”

Now that the FAA has been temporarily funded, Principato said his organization would use the rest of the Congressional recess to make the case for lawmakers to negotiate more effectively and in good faith when they return.

“No one should be lulled into believing that because the system stayed safe and travelers weren’t affected that this didn’t have an impact,” he said. “This was destructive and this had an impact.”