Possible FAA partial shutdown imminent
The Federal Aviation Administration could shut down parts of its operations if a budget stalemate isn't resolved.
Republican House members have upped the pressure on Democrats to preserve an anti-union measure in the agency’s pending funding legislation. Should lawmakers not pass the bill, the agency's funding would be cut off.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has insisted that the anti-union measure—which would make it harder for transportation industry workers to unionize—remain intact in the funding measure. With neither side giving ground, a stop in funding is a real possibility.
“Congress needs to stop playing games, work out its differences, and pass a clean FAA bill immediately. There is no excuse for not getting this done,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said July 20. “Important programs and construction projects are at stake. This stalemate must be resolved.”
The growing skirmish over the obscure measure has been little noticed by the public or lawmakers alike against the vastly larger standoff over the historic, multitrillion dollar debt limit crisis gripping official Washington. But a new spending bill must be passed by the close of Fri., July 22, for the FAA to continue full operations. At midweek, compromise seemed unlikely in an escalating war of chessboard moves.
Mica recently added to his insistence on protecting the anti-union provision yet another provocative measure: He proposed cutting Essential Air Service funds for 13 rural airports, including three FAA facilities in Nevada, West Virginia and Montana.
Inevitably, Mica’s proposal is drawing the ire of three key Democratic lawmakers from those states, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont.—key committees in the funding and oversight of FAA.
“The Senate will not consider passing an FAA extension with policy riders that hurt small communities across the country," Rockefeller said. "By sending over a bill that can't pass the Senate, we risk shutting down our nation's aviation system.”
The bottom line is that a congressional failure to fund FAA would quickly impact some federal employees—but, short-term at least, not the flying public—or air traffic controllers, according to their union spokesperson.
“We would expect to be regarded as essential employees [if funding fails to come through],” Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said. “We don’t have a lot of information about this. I don’t know what has been discussed, or any plans, if any are in place—on the FAA side of things—on this.”
“A short-term shutdown would be completely invisible to the public,” confirmed Dan Elwell, Vice President of civil aviation for the Aerospace Industries Association, noting that not only controllers but also inspectors and most other FAA employees—all but 4,000 of the agency’s entire workforce, in fact—would continue to work during any “shutdown.” In addition to being deemed essential, the majority of FAA employees are paid from the agency’s operations account, which would not be affected, at least in a brief shutdown.
Elwell added, however, that any break in needed funding would be very disruptive to agency business—especially to long-term work projects such as the agency’s primary modernization effort, NextGen—and should be avoided.
On Wed., July 20, in an almost strictly party-line vote (243-177), the House passed a short-term provision for funding FAA containing the cuts to EAS, virtually ensuring Senate rejection of the measure and a partial agency shutdown, starting this weekend.
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