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Lawmaker: Administration sounding 'false alarm' on budget cuts to FAA

The Obama administration's warnings about sequestration causing air travel delays is a "false alarm," House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said Tuesday.

The administration has said that the $85 billion in spending cuts that are scheduled to take effect on Friday under the automatic reductions known as sequestration would result in furloughs for air traffic controllers who work for the FAA.

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Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has argued in numerous media appearances that the furloughs could result in flight delays at large airports across the country.

But during an appearance on Fox News Channel's "Fox and Friends" on Tuesday, Shuster said he did not buy the administration's claims about the FAA's budget cuts.

“This is a false alarm," Shuster said. "There is no financial data to back this up. There’s plenty of money there. They need to sharpen their pencil. The administration needs to get down to work and look to other places where they can move this money around.”

LaHood has said the FAA would have to consider furloughing air traffic controllers because they are the largest group of employees at the aviation agency. 

"At [the Department of Transportation], we will need to cut nearly $1 billion, which will affect dozens of our programs," he said in an appearance at the White House press briefing last week.

"Over $600 million of these cuts will need to come from the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency that controls and manages our nation's skies," LaHood continued. "As a result of these cuts, the vast majority of FAA's nearly 47,000 employees will be furloughed for approximately one day per pay period until the end of the fiscal year and, in some cases, it could be as many as two days."

Shuster argued Tuesday that the FAA could make its cuts in other places, however.

"They have non-operation personnel accounts, up to $2.7 billion," he said. "That's things like supplies, travel and conference. Over the last seven years, 18,000 of their employees have gone to conferences. They can cut out those types of things before they have to cut into the muscle of the FAA."

Shuster attributed the FAA's statements about the necessity of furloughing air traffic controllers to "poor financial management.

"That's been the history of the FAA," he said. "They need to get down to business. They need to look at it like a private company does and says 'we're in tough times, let's figure out how to become more productive, and let's figure out where we can cut and make sure that safety isn't sacrificed.' " 

Shuster and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) wrote a letter to LaHood on Tuesday arguing that the FAA has not made its sequester budget plans clear to lawmakers.

"Since August of 2012, Congress has attempted to gather information from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regarding spend plans under the current continuing resolution and in preparation for the possibility of a budget sequestration that may take effect on March 1 of this year," Shuster and Thune wrote.

"To date, those requests for information have gone unanswered," the GOP lawmakers continued. "Given the administration and the Department’s recent statements on a possible sequestration’s effects on the traveling public, it is imperative that the information we have continuously sought be provided as soon as possible."

Shuster similarly cast doubt on statements about sequestration causing longer Transportation Security Administration (TSA) lines during his "Fox and Friends" appearance.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said on Monday that the TSA would also have to furlough airport security screeners if Congress does not reach an agreement to avert the sequester.

"At the major international airports, we will be limited in accepting new international flights, and average wait times to clear customs will increase by as much as 50 percent, and at our busiest airports, like Newark and JFK, LAX and O'Hare, peak wait times which can reach over two hours could easily grow to four hours or more," Napolitano said in a White House press briefing appearance of her own.

"Such delays will cause thousands of missed passenger connections daily, with economic consequences at both the local and the national levels," Napolitano continued.

Shuster said Tuesday that the TSA could also withstand budget cuts without furloughing essential security personnel.

"Once again, the TSA, you've seen [the number of] flight passengers have been flat in this country, but yet the TSA workers have increased by 3,000 members," he said. 

"You've also got risk-based assessment and pre-screening that makes their job a little bit either, so we have the people in place," Shuster continued. "I do not believe properly managed that we will have any problems with the TSA or the FAA."