Be merry, budget hawks — Trump air control plan saves $10 billion a year
© Getty Images

The Trump administration has released a blueprint for the first step of its transportation agenda — one that signals a major change in tone for a president who has been bullish on large transportation spending since his campaign. Monday’s plan, which suggests reforms to the nation’s Air Traffic Control (ATC) system, would create an independent, nonprofit and “more nimble” ATC entity funded by user fees and managed by a professional board of directors that airlines, unions and trade groups would nominate.

The plan is not new — it mirrors the one suggested in the Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization, or AIRR Act, that Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) introduced in 2016. Monday’s guiding document suggests an intention to go further, saying the AIRR “can be improved,” but does not include full details.

ADVERTISEMENT

In his press conference, the president heralded what he called a “great new era in American aviation” and an “air travel revolution” that would finally allow modernization of a system that he said is costing “billions and billions” and leaving the United States “still stuck with an ancient, broken, antiquated system that doesn’t work.”

 

He’s not wrong. Air traffic control currently costs the federal government about $10 billion every year, and that doesn’t include the secondary costs of such an outdated system. Between 1996 and 2012, the budget of the Federal Aviation Administration doubled, productivity dropped and major system updates were over budget and years behind schedule.

Those struggles are part of why airlines in the United States have long supported the idea of overhauling air traffic control, arguing that the FAA’s modernization efforts have been too slow and too dependent upon inconsistent congressional funding or even government shutdowns. In Monday’s press conference, President TrumpDonald John TrumpNearly 300 former national security officials sign Biden endorsement letter DC correspondent on the death of Michael Reinoehl: 'The folks I know in law enforcement are extremely angry about it' Late night hosts targeted Trump over Biden 97 percent of the time in September: study MORE heralded support from air traffic controllers themselves, as well as passenger advocates, pilot unions and airline leaders.

While it remains to be seen what will happen in the appropriations phase, especially if the plan fails to garner Democratic support, the prospect of saving over $10 billion annually while transitioning over 30,000 federal employees off the national payroll is the type of opportunity that rarely comes along.

Throughout the campaign and into his presidency, Donald Trump has struck a unique tone for a Republican. He has repeatedly called for massive infrastructure spending and an overhaul of the nation’s roads, bridges and airports — with a reported price tag of at least $1 trillion. At least in terms of rhetoric, the question of reform was just not a priority.

So perhaps the most promising aspect of Monday’s plan is a sign that it represents a shifting mindset, where reform comes first. The idea, as the proposal says, is that, "The Federal Government does not have to supply all of the resources required to develop and maintain our nation’s vast infrastructure. Often, it simply needs to remove the obstacles to investment and innovation.”

Fiscal conservatives are right to be troubled at the prospect of hiking an already bloated budget and adding to a debt teetering around $20 trillion. That’s why it’s refreshing to see that the first rollout in the president’s long-awaited infrastructure plan involves spending reform. While details are still scarce, the olive branch could signal that future iterations will also include offsets and fundamental reassessments of government programs.

This should be an important note as Congress moves ahead into a busy summer of policy fights. Fiscal conservatives are often accused of holding a knee-jerk objection to any new spending for any reason. But while there is a range of opinions on the ideal world each of us wants, almost all fiscal hawks recognize, say, the value of fixing unsafe bridges.

The relevant question is how any new initiatives — no matter how worthwhile — will be paid for and whether they’ll constitute growing government at the expense of the deficit, debt and economic stability in years to come. Federal funds simply aren’t unlimited, and irresponsibility has consequences.

As with much of the president’s grand policy plans so far, details are still forthcoming, but there is room for optimism. The “skinny” budget will take months of intense work before there is any hope that it stays slim, but the first infrastructure rollout suggests the administration is serious in its push to make streamlined government a reality.

Jonathan Bydlak is the founder and president of the Coalition to Reduce Spending, an advocate for lower federal spending and the creator of SpendingTracker.org. He is a fiscal policy expert and also served as director of fundraising on Ron Paul's 2008 presidential campaign. Follow him on Twitter @jbydlak and @Reduce_Spending.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.