FAA fight halted for now
August 6, 2011
Staff and wire reports
WASHINGTON — With tens of thousands of jobs and more than $1 billion on the line, Senate Democrats gave way Friday to a power play by House Republicans in order to end a partial two-week shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Operations at Clovis Municipal Airport, including a runway extension project, have gone mostly uninterrupted, Manager Steve Summers said.
The current runway extension, which Summers expects to be completed in mid-September, was not affected.
“That was already under grants and funded,” Summers said. “The only problem was being able to be reimbursed.
“We did put on hold another project we were going to get ready to bid on. That was the relocation of FAA equipment due to the runway extension.”
With lawmakers scattered for Congress’ August recess, the consent of only two senators was required to pass a bill restoring the FAA’s operating authority through Sept. 16. President Barack Obama signed it into law hours later. But partisan differences remain, and a repeat performance of the legislative standoff could come next month.
The impasse had left hundreds of airport construction projects — including a $10 million asphalt resurfacing at Albuquerque International Sunport — in limbo and idled tens of thousands of construction industry workers, as well as nearly 4,000 FAA employees.
One of the biggest costs was to the hard-pressed U.S. treasury, which lost about $400 million in uncollected taxes during the two-week standoff and stood to continue losing $30 million a day — more than $1 billion in total — if there had been no solution before Congress returns from its recess.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said the deal was better than not acting.
“It allows important safety upgrades at airports across New Mexico to move forward,” Bingaman said. “It also puts New Mexicans in the construction industry back to work.”
For most of the stalemate, attention of both Congress and the public was riveted on the debt crisis.
After that compromise was reached, lawmakers began to receive calls about unfinished airport towers and construction companies in dire straits at home. Some unemployed workers found their way to Capitol Hill to complain.
Democrats had been holding firm against the House legislation on FAA operations because it proposed cutting Essential Air Service (EAS) subsidies to 13 rural communities. In short, they feared getting steamrolled on similar legislation in the future if they gave Republicans their way. For example, spending authority for federal highway programs expires Sept. 30, another possible point of contention.
But once the focus fell away from the deal to avert a federal debt default, Democrats began to waver and finally gave up the fight.
Republicans achieved the subsidy cuts in the final law but with a major caveat. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has the authority to continue subsidized service to the 13 communities if he decides it’s necessary.
Obama’s signature means the nearly 4,000 furloughed FAA employees can return to work as soon as Monday. Work can also resume on more than 200 airport construction projects.
Both the House and Senate passed long-term financing bills for the FAA earlier this year, but negotiations on resolving differences and completing the legislation remain stalled. That’s what made a short-term extension of spending authority necessary.
The agency has been operating under a series of 20 such extensions since 2007, when the last long-term FAA financing bill expired.
The biggest holdup is a labor provision in the House bill. Republicans want to overturn a National Mediation Board rule approved last year that allows airline and railroad employees to form a union by a simple majority of those voting. Under the old rule, workers who didn’t vote were treated as “no” votes.
“Obviously, we need to put people back to work,” Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., who represents the state’s 2nd Congressional District, told the Albuquerque Journal. “But at some point, we’ve got to deal with the larger issues.”
Airline passengers in the busy travel season hardly noticed any of the changes over the two weeks.
Airlines continued to work as normal, but were no longer authorized to collect federal ticket taxes. For some ticket buyers, prices dropped. But for most, nothing changed because airlines raised their base prices to match the tax.
Alamogordo is the only New Mexico city targeted for subsidy cuts. Others are Morgantown, W.Va.; Athens, Ga.; Glendive, Mont.; Ely, Nev.; Jamestown, N.Y.; Bradford, Pa.; Hagerstown, Md.; Jonesboro, Ark.; Johnstown, Pa.; Franklin/Oil City, Pa.; Lancaster, Pa.; and Jackson, Tenn.
Clovis receives EAS service from Great Lakes Airlines, which operates 12 flights a week between Clovis and Albuquerque.
Summers said Clovis’ services would not be affected by the proposed changes because the subsidy is less than $1,000 per ticket and the airport is more than 90 miles from a larger hub.
“It seems like EAS is always a target, which is unfortunate because most of it’s funded by overseas flight fees,” Summer said. “It doesn’t come out of the general fund. It’s not going to do anything about the deficit (to phase it out).”