Industry hoping next FAA bill has smoother ride through Congress

The aviation industry is hopeful that lawmakers will act quickly to prevent another shutdown off the Federal Aviation Administration at the end of January.

The short-term measure that funds the FAA expires on Jan. 31, leaving lawmakers, who are still trickling back from the holiday recess, little time to act. 

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The last two times the agency’s funding was winding down produced high drama in Congress. Stalled negotiations over a short-term bill in August led to a nearly two-week shutdown of the agency and worker furloughs nationwide.

 Airline companies are bracing for another bumpy ride this month, but are optimistic that lawmakers can agree to at least a short-term extension to keep the FAA up and running.

“The odds are slim they’ll reach a deal [on a long-term bill] in a week, but it’s also unlikely they’ll let it lapse,” an industry source told The Hill.

If Congress passes another short-term extension, it would be the 23rd stopgap FAA bill since the agency’s last multi-year appropriations bill expired in 2007.

Lobbying groups for the major players in the aviation industry spent the holiday recess making the case that the current short-term extension, passed last September, should be the last.

“Upon Congress’s return to Washington later this month, the first item of business must be to pass a two-year extension of the operating authority for the Federal Aviation Administration,” Airport Council International President Greg Principato wrote in a letter to House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) and the ranking Democrat on the panel, Rep. Nick RahallNick RahallWest Virginia is no longer Clinton country Solution needed: Rail congestion is stifling economic growth Lobbying World MORE (W.Va.).

Short-term extensions are “no way to run the safest aviation system in the world,” Principato wrote in the letter.

“Airports have been forced to deal with 22 extensions in the last five years, including six covering 2011 alone. The last six extensions, which averaged just over two months in length, have left the FAA and airports filing out and approving multiple forms for the same projects.”

Standing in the way of ending that cycle, however, are the same issues that prevented passage of a long-term bill for the FAA for all of 2011. Last year, both chambers passed versions of the measure; the House approved a four-year, $59 billion bill, while the Senate passed a two-year, $34 billion version.

But negotiations to bridge the two versions were grounded by a provision in the House to undo rules adopted in 2009 by the National Mediation Board to ensure that absentee votes were not counted as votes against forming a union in labor elections in the transportation sector.

The Democratically controlled Senate balked at the provision, calling it anti-democratic. The GOP-led House has refused to drop it, leading to a standoff that has gone on since May 2011.

The Chamber of Commerce, which normally sides with Republicans on labor issues, says that the provision should be removed from the long-term FAA bill and dealt with on its own.

“Congress has until Jan. 31 to finish the FAA reauthorization, which has been delayed for more than four years,” Chamber President Thomas Donohue said in a speech last week. “A new NextGen air traffic control system must be a top priority. It will ease delays, conserve fuel, create jobs and save lives.”

After the speech, the Chamber stressed Donohue was not taking a position on the laws regarding labor elections in transportation. Instead, the organization said, it was stating it preference for a bill that funds the FAA over the long haul. 

Jane Calderwood, vice president for government and political affairs at the Airports Council, said lawmakers should pass an FAA extension of funding at current levels for as long as they can, even if they cannot work out a deal on the labor provisions. 

“A long-term extension does not prevent Congress from finishing their work on this bill,” she said.

“Let’s face it, since last March, what has changed on the key issue, the [labor provision]? Let us do our job while they figure out whatever the extension is going to be.”

Meanwhile, the union for flight attendants said Tuesday it is running radio ads against freshman Republican members of the Transportation Committee, Reps. Chip Cravaack (Minn.) and Sean DuffySean DuffyGOP lawmakers question Manafort’s Ukraine work Trump brings conflict with Ryan to Wisconsin Puerto Rico task force asks for help in charting island's economic course MORE (Wis.), for backing the labor provisions in the long-term FAA bill.

The union, the Communication Workers of America, has repeatedly accused Mica of “doing the bidding of” doing Delta Airlines in pushing for the change to the labor rules.

Despite the continued back and forth over the labor provisions, a spokesman for Mica sounded an optimistic note Tuesday about the prospects for an FAA bill to be approved by lawmakers in the next two weeks.

“There is still time to complete action on a long-term bill before the end of the month, and Chairman Mica is hopeful that Congress will be able to do so,” Mica spokesman Justin Harclerode said in an email to The Hill.

Asked about progress on the bill, however, Harclerode demurred.

“For the status of any negotiations between House and Senate leaderships, I’ll defer to them.”