Lawmakers fought FAA air tower closures with ‘letter marking’

Lawmakers flooded the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with letters this spring pleading with the agency to keep open their local contract air traffic control towers, documents obtained by The Hill show.

Roughly 100 letters obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request show members of Congress were “letter marking” on the planned budget cuts from sequestration at the FAA.

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The FAA announced last week it would keep all of the towers open. But before Congress passed legislation providing the agency with more spending flexibility, the FAA was moving swiftly to close down air towers nationwide.

That sparked a swift and aggressive response from members of Congress. Dozens of lawmakers from both parties wrote to the FAA and the Department of Transportation asking for towers in their states and districts to be spared from the sequester.

The letters provide a rare look at the practice of “letter marking,” which has come into vogue since Congress imposed a moratorium on earmarks that prevents members from seeking specific funding for local projects and programs in appropriations bills.

Members of Congress can still look out for the interests of their home states by writing to federal agencies, and the practice mostly escapes public scrutiny unless lawmakers choose to publicize it.

“In this current earmark climate, where they can’t secure specific funding for their local projects, their energy goes to make sure that the spending that is currently going on remains in place,” said Erich Zimmermann, a senior policy analyst at Taxpayers for Common Sense. “The sentiment is it’s wasteful spending if it’s in someone else’s state, but it’s appropriate if it’s in mine.”

Forced to slash $637 million from its 2013 budget, the FAA in early March drew up a list of 189 air traffic towers to close. On March 22, the FAA whittled that list down to 149 towers.

Before the March 22 list was released, lawmakers sent a barrage of letters to the agency and to the Department of Transportation to make the case for their favored towers. At least 19 of those lawmakers' letters saw at least one of the towers they fought for excluded from the March 22 closures list. The partisan breakdown was nine letters written by Democrats, nine by Republicans and one by a bipartisan group.

Sens. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) signed six different letters dated mid-March sent to the FAA — sometimes with Reps. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) or Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) — asking them to “retain” specific towers in their state. Of the six they defended, two were not included on the March 22 list.

“Our letter to the FAA urging them to make smart cuts and Dr. Coburn’s recent statement ridiculing the FAA for engaging in a dangerous political stunt had a much bigger impact than the joint letters,” said John Hart, a Coburn spokesman.

Some lawmakers believed their efforts helped save some of their towers before Congress acted on sequester legislation.

“I believe our advocacy made a difference at a few points in the process,” Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) said in a statement. 

The Hill found that Wilson authored four different letters, including one with Reps. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. One tower at Opa-Locka Executive Airport near Miami was not included on the closure list, but North Perry Airport in Broward County, Fla., was not so lucky.  

Wilson didn’t give up on North Perry, however. She said she called FAA officials, published op-eds, held a press conference at the tower and drafted an appropriations request. 

Others had success as well.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, saw the tower at Klamath Falls Airport in Oregon stay off the closure list after he told the FAA closing it would risk “both public safety and national defense” in a March 14 letter.  

“Rep. Walden is glad the FAA agreed with his concerns and decided to keep the tower open,” said Andrew Malcolm, a Walden spokesman.

Other lawmakers were more strident in their warnings. Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) warned that closing a flight tower at Kissimmee, Fla., could result in terrorists targeting amusement parks like Walt Disney World. 

He wrote in a March 12 letter that the tower, at the Kissimmee Gateway Airport, “protects the Disney Temporary Flight Restricted Area immediately to the northwest — flight space which may someday be used in the War on Terror if the various reports of Al Qaeda targeting Disney are true.” 

Kissimmee was not included on the FAA’s final list of tower closures. 

Other lawmakers saw towers marked for closure despite their pleas.

“I humbly request that you reconsider your decision to close this tower, taking into account the essential functions this airport provides, and the potentially devastating impact its closure will have on the city of Blaine, the state of Minnesota, and our nation,” wrote Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) in a March 13 letter. 

Despite her request, that tower and another tower at St. Cloud Regional Airport that Bachmann defended were included on the closure list. 

When the FAA announced its decision to keep all the towers open last week, the U.S. Contract Tower Association said that lawmakers who wrote to the FAA helped sway the agency. 

“We appreciate the leadership of the dozens of senators and members of the U.S. House of Representatives who have worked diligently to ensure that these important air traffic facilities remain open now and well into the future,” Executive Director J. Spencer Dickerson said in a statement.  

The FAA declined to comment Wednesday on the tower letters. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said when the FAA initially cut down the closure list, it was responding to complaints from “communities across the country about the importance of their towers.” 

Zimmermann with Taxpayers for Common Sense said the letters demonstrated “the influence-peddling between the administration and Congress that the public doesn’t often see.”

“[Lawmakers] are gripping so tight onto these local projects that they forget about the bigger picture, which is to wipe out the deficit,” he said.