Trump jumps into air traffic control fight

Trump jumps into air traffic control fight
© Greg Nash

A proposal to separate air traffic control from the federal government has found its most powerful ally in President Trump.

But the contentious plan still faces a bumpy road in Congress, where some key Republicans remain opposed to the idea.

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Proponents of the spinoff plan acknowledge that it’s going to take far more than just Trump’s stamp of approval, delivered in his budget proposal last week, to move the needle on the thorny issue.

They want to see Trump put some real muscle behind the proposal when it’s up for debate on Capitol Hill later this year, such as personally reaching out to members, talking about the issue in public and visiting countries such as Canada that already have a similar system in place.

“It’s a lot easier when you have an administration behind it and all the weight and resources they can bring to the fight,” Nick Calio, president and CEO of the trade group Airlines for America, said in a telephone interview. “You’ve got a big machine that, if it gets well-oiled and up and running, can help bring this issue home.”

“At the end of the day, you’ve got to get to 218 and 60 votes,” he added, referring to votes needed for passage in the House and Senate, respectively, though with five vacancies in the House currently, a simple majority would be 216.

Efforts to transfer air traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration to a nonprofit or nongovernmental organization stalled in the House last year. While the FAA would still maintain safety oversight, the plan would represent a dramatic shift in how the country manages its air traffic control operations.

Bill sponsors will get another bite at the apple this year when Congress works on legislation to reauthorize the FAA, whose legal authority expires in September.

Supporters say it’s necessary to speed up long-stalled modernization efforts and to avoid the financial and political uncertainty of the annual appropriations process. The spinoff model would also remove 30,000 FAA employees from the federal payroll, where workers are subject to salary caps.

The airline industry has lobbied Congress heavily for the proposal, which also earned the support of the air traffic controllers union last year. But the changes have been divisive.

Delta Air Lines broke with most of the major airlines to oppose the plan, while many Democrats and GOP tax writers and appropriators have major reservations about the idea. They worry about handing over the power to collect fees to a nongovernmental agency and removing operations from congressional oversight.

Trump, who has long complained about the country’s “third-world airports,” publicly endorsed the idea for the first time in his budget proposal.

In his spending blueprint, Trump calls for a “multi-year reauthorization proposal to shift the air traffic control function of the Federal Aviation Administration to an independent, non-governmental organization, making the system more efficient and innovative while maintaining safety.”

The document says the model, which is used by most of the world’s developed nations, “would benefit the flying public and taxpayers overall.”

“Presidential leadership on something like this … changes the landscape,” Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told reporters Thursday. “I’m very excited about it.”

Shuster, an early Trump backer who has been leading House efforts on air traffic control reform, said he still needs to sit down with the White House to hash out the administration’s vision.

Some proponents think Trump’s ringing endorsement could add fresh momentum to the stalled effort.

“It’s totally a game-changer,” Calio said. “It’s been put on the national stage by someone who has the biggest microphone in the country.”

Supporters say Trump could help tip the scales in the debate by using his political capital to bring along skeptical Republicans. He could directly talk to lawmakers about the idea or dispatch Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: Treasury rejects Dem subpoena for Trump tax returns | Companies warn trade war about to hit consumers | Congress, White House to launch budget talks next week | Trump gets deal to lift steel tariffs on Mexico, Canada Schumer calls on McConnell to hold vote on Equality Act House Dem cites transgender grandson in voting for Equality Act MORE (R-Ky.) and has strong relationships on both sides of the aisle, to personally meet with members and chip away at the opposition.

“That’s his biggest asset,” said Rep. Lou BarlettaLouis (Lou) James BarlettaTrump's most memorable insults and nicknames of 2018 GOP trading fancy offices, nice views for life in minority Casey secures third Senate term over Trump-backed Barletta MORE (R-Pa.), who was on Trump’s transition team. “It appears that after somebody meets with him, he’s very convincing. He wrote the ‘Art of the Deal.’ ”

Another way Trump could be helpful, according to advocates of the spinoff plan, is to draw the public’s attention to the issue through his signature style: on Twitter or at rallies. Getting the public on board with the changes is a key goal for bill backers.

Marc Scribner, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, suggested that Trump follow the lead of a former congressman who once held up a strip of flight paper during a hearing to show what air traffic controllers use to track flights.

“If the public knew we are still tracking air traffic using a little piece of paper, that’s a powerful visual,” Scribner said. “I’d hope there would be some sort of public outreach push from the White House. That’s something the president and administration has a much easier time doing than even a powerful chairman.”

A visit to Canada, which set up a similar outside agency to oversee air traffic control operations 20 years ago, could also help shine a spotlight on the issue. The Hill reported that Chao is considering a trip to the country in the coming weeks.

But Trump’s support could also be troublesome. Democrats have shown little appetite to work with him on many issues, though infrastructure investment could be one area of compromise.

“Potentially one downside, given how polarizing the Trump administration has been, people who are reflexively opposed to the Trump administration may not take the time to actually investigate the proposal,” Scribner said. “My concern is this is going to get caught up with other controversies.”

The spinoff plan also still appears to face opposition among Republican tax writers and appropriators.

“The concern I’ve had is that it creates another mandatory spending program without congressional oversight,” Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, told The Hill on Thursday. “We’ll take a look at this as it goes along.”

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin BradyKevin Patrick BradyHouse to vote on retirement bill next week House chairman issues subpoenas for Trump's tax returns Top Republican urges Dem chairman to drop Trump tax returns effort MORE (R-Texas) said he would need to look over any proposal and get back to reporters with his thoughts.

Across the Capitol, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee and its transportation subcommittee signaled that they still have their same concerns, saying in a recent letter “it does not appear to make sense to break apart the FAA.”

“The public would not be well served by exempting any part of the FAA from congressional oversight,” they wrote. “The annual appropriations process provides the oversight of agency resources necessary to ensure accountability for program performance and a sustained focus on aviation safety.” 

Scribner, however, predicted that appropriators may use their pull to avoid dramatic funding cuts that were floated in Trump’s budget outline.

“The appropriators are going to have to pick a hill to die on,” he said. “A lot of them would be more interested in using political capital to preserve grant programs.”

It also remains to be seen just how far Trump is willing to go to bat for the proposal. Opponents have been quick to point out that the president’s budget does not become law — it’s merely a guiding document.

“The president proposes and the Congress disposes,” said Todd Hauptli, president and CEO of the American Association of Airport Executives. “We are confident the Congress will dispose of proposals that would harm efforts by airports to enhance security, reduce wait times and protect air service options for smaller communities.”

And Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), ranking member on the Transportation Committee, suggested that Trump’s endorsement of the plan was merely “a political favor” thrown to Shuster for backing him in the GOP presidential primary race.

“It doesn’t resolve any of the problems with the plan,” DeFazio told reporters Thursday. “Unless the president actually puts some juice behind it, which I find unlikely, and personally persuades a whole bunch of people who are opposed, I don’t think it makes any difference.”