Aviation bills grounded by gridlock

Aviation bills grounded by gridlock
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Lawmakers in the House and Senate are locked in a stalemate over bills to ramp up aviation security and ease growing airport wait times. 

The House keeps passing incremental measures on aviation safety and airport screening, but senators have been reluctant to clear the legislation because they want the lower chamber to instead pass their Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill that contains similar provisions. 


The legislative limbo is frustrating passengers and travel advocates who want to see congested lines and potential vulnerabilities at airports addressed ahead of the busy summer travel season. 

“The issue of congressional gridlock and each chamber having its own prerogative is long-standing,” said Jonathan Grella, executive vice president of public affairs for the U.S. Travel Association. “The challenge here though is that we have a national crisis. A stare-down contest may not be sustainable.” 

Congress has been contending with a number of crises in the aviation sector in recent months. Terrorists bombed a Brussels airport and subway station in March, while an EgyptAir crash last month may have been caused by a terrorist attack.

Meanwhile, airports have been overwhelmed with an increase in air travel and a reduction in screening staff at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), leading to hours-long wait times and scores of missed flights around the country. 

The House passed a measure by voice vote last year from Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) that would require the TSA to partner with the private sector to encourage enrollment in its PreCheck program, which allows passengers who have undergone background checks to move through expedited security lanes without taking off their shoes or removing their laptops from bags. 

Trusted traveler programs have been cast as a way to improve both screening speed and safety at checkpoints because of the increase in pre-vetted passengers. 

The House recently passed two other bills from Katko, who chairs the Homeland Security subcommittee on transportation security. One would allow TSA to donate unneeded screening equipment to foreign airports that have direct flights to the United States and the other would overhaul how the TSA makes staffing resource decisions.

But none of Katko’s bipartisan legislation has yet cleared the Senate. 

“It’s time for the Senate to do its job and take action,” Katko said in a statement last week.  

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, echoed a similar message during a TSA hearing last month. 

“Unfortunately, the Senate has failed to pass these bills, which is unconscionable,” he said. “So today, I would like to send a message to my colleagues in the other body: It’s time to get moving.” 

But the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee fired back on twitter that Katko’s “excellent TSA PreCheck bill to address long lines becomes law if the House passes the Senate FAA bill.” 

The Senate’s long-term reauthorization of the FAA, which passed the chamber in a 95-3 vote, includes language to expand enrollment in PreCheck; increase the presence of bomb-sniffing dogs in airports; strengthen the airport employee vetting process, and enable foreign airports that have direct flights to the U.S. to receive unneeded security equipment from the U.S. 

Transportation Chairman John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSenate to vote on Trump's Canada, Mexico trade deal Thursday Senate braces for Trump impeachment trial Republicans face internal brawl over impeachment witnesses MORE (R-S.D.) and ranking member Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonThe most expensive congressional races of the last decade Lobbying world Bottom Line MORE (D-Fla.) urged their House counterparts to take up the Senate’s FAA package, arguing that it offers the best chance to get something on the president’s desk this year. 

“Given the timely security and safety issues addressed in the bill, time is of the essence,” they wrote. 

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), however, has shown no interest in considering the Senate version, casting further uncertainty on the path forward for the security and screening measures.

“The House does not want to be pressured into taking up a Senate bill when it has it’s own ideas,” Grella said.  “But a bill just passing one chamber may not be sufficient if we continue to have these problems at airports.”