FAA Funding Remains In Limbo As Congress Goes On Vacation

Congress is failing to complete even simple tasks thanks to a bitter partisan divide.

I made note of it about two weeks ago, but the debt negotiations pretty much pushed from the headlines another story that demonstrates how broken the Congress is these days. I am referring of course, to the fact that, two weeks ago, Congress failed to renew the law that partially funds the Federal Aviation Administration via a $50 tax on airline tickets. Congress has now gone on vacation, and the law remains in limbo:

A dispute over funding for the Federal Aviation Administration has left an estimated 74,000 people out of work for a dozen days and tossed Congress into the throes of yet another interparty battle.

Now, with lawmakers leaving town or already on recess, there seems to be little hope of a resolution on the horizon.

Lawmakers allowed funding for the FAA to expire July 23, leaving 4,000 agency workers on furlough and 70,000 people in construction-related jobs out of work, possibly until September, when Congress will reconvene.

On Wednesday, party leaders blamed each other for the deadlock, and President Obama said Congress had “decided to play politics” and put the the nation’s fragile economic recovery at risk. He said he expects a resolution of the issue by the end of the week.

But a handful of furloughed workers discovered that the chances for a quick solution were dim when they trekked to the Capitol and had trouble finding anyone to hear their pleas. The House left town on Monday, and most senators were gone by Wednesday.

“We’re staring at a possible six weeks without pay, and they’ll all get nice suntans on their vacations,” said Dan Stefko, a furloughed FAA engineer who flew in from Pittsburgh.

“Nobody believed they would actually walk away from this,” added Bob Aitken, an engineer from Chicago, as the group made the rounds, meeting with a handful of lawmakers and staff members.

And yet, go on vacation they did. It would be relatively easy for both sides to avoid the disruption that this is causing by simply agreeing to extend the law for a set period of time, as they’ve apparently done twenty times since 2007. Since neither House of Congress is officially in recess, they could do the same thing right now via unanimous consent resolutions and then deal with the issue when they get back in September, but that seems unlikely, especially given the fact that the parties cannot even seem to agree what the dispute is about:

With most of the American public emerging from debt-ceiling-debate overload, the facts of the funding stalemate seemed bewildering. Unlike the debt talks, in which trillions of dollars were in play, the FAA funding has been stalled by matters that hold greater importance to members of Congress than to the majority of the flying public.

Primary among them is a partisan split over the rules that govern union efforts to organize airline workers.

There have been 20 short-term funding bills for the FAA since September 2007. Even when Democrats controlled both chambers, agreement on long-term funding was elusive. When the Republican-led House passed the 21st extension last month, it tacked on provisions about rural airports intended to cause discomfort for Senate Democrats.

This, said House transportation committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-Fla.), was done in the hope that an unpalatable extension might motivate senators to settle the differences between the long-term FAA funding bills passed by the House and the Senate this year.

But the Senate balked, demanding a “clean” bill.

That brought to the fore the more contentious issue: The House’s long-term funding bill seeks to undo a new rule that makes it easier for unions to organize airline employees.

It is on that issue — which is not even included in the House extension bill — that Mica, Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) and other House Republicans are standing fast.

Even lawmakers who carried the debate to the Senate floor last week conflated and confused the issues and the different bills, so much so that aides more than once passed slips of paper to them so they could make corrections mid-debate.

While Congress continues its Mexican standoff, though, the failure to reach an agreement is having a real world impact. When funding ended in July 23rd, the FAA put 4,000 non-essential employees on furlough. Essential FAA employees, such as safety inspectors, are still on the job but are being expected to pay their own expenses with the prospect of reimbursement in the future being little more than a promise at this point. Additionally, the FAA put on hold numerous construction projects at airports across the country, impacting the bottom lines of numerous construction contractors and as many as 70,000 construction workers nationwide. If this standoff continues through the remainder of the Congressional vacation period, the government will lose upwards of $1,000,000,000 in funding for the FAA since it is not legally entitled to collected the ticket tax at this time. And, oh yea, the airlines are continuing to make consumers pay that $50 and adding the money to their bank accounts.

On the left the blame is, of course, being placed on Republicans in the House:

Mica and his colleagues did this through a step that was “within the rules” though obviously destructive. They passed a version of the FAA bill with provisions they knew the Senate wouldn’t accept — and then adjourned for (paid) August vacation, leaving the Senate to swallow their unilateral demands or leave tens of thousands of families without paychecks. All this, of course, as opposed to arranging a way to keep things running while they worked out their political disputes. Many airport safety inspectors are being asked to do their work as volunteers, and run up expenses on their personal credit cards in hopes of later reimbursement. We’re not just asking the Chinese to cover our inability to pay our way; we’re asking our own GS-12s. This is squalid.

On the right, it’s being pointed out that the Senate has mishandled this issue just as badly as the House allegedly has:

Procedurally, Rockefeller and Coburn did the same thing.  They both refused to provide unanimous consent to proceed with a bill.  Democrats in the Senate have an advantage in that they can overcome a lack of unanimous consent more easily, albeit through a lengthier process.  Furthermore, the bill that Rockefeller pushed would have to then go through the House because it was completely different in scope from the House version.  By that time, though, the House had recessed –  two weeks after passing its version of the FAA authorization bill, on July 20th.

The Senate had HR 2553 placed on its legislative calendar on July 22nd, a Friday prior to a weekend in which Harry Reid demanded that the House remain in town to work.  So why didn’t Reid put forward his own FAA extension bill?  Before Harry Reid became Senate Majority Leader, the process had each chamber pass their own version of a bill and then form a conference committee to iron out the differences.  This year, however, Reid has refused to move bills at all, insisting that the House pass versions of bills acceptable to Reid before he deigns to work on them at all.

That last part puzzles me to say the least. Conference Committees have been a regular part of the legislative process virtually since the beginning of the Republic, especially when control of the chambers is divided between the parties. They seem to have disappeared in recent years, however, as the partisan divide has become deeper, which would seem to be precisely the kind of situation in which a Conference Committee would be useful. In any event, it strikes me as the height of legislative irresponsibility for Congress to simply go on vacation and leave this issue, and the jobs of some 74,000 people in limbo, especially in these economic conditions. It also seems like a dumb political move, because it just reinforces the opinion that the public gathered during the debt ceiling debate that Congress is behaving like a bunch of spoiled children

Finally, it strikes me that stuff like this shouldn’t be happening over such a minor issue. It is, perhaps, understandable, when partisan rhetoric gets heated when dealing with big issues like the national debt, the size and scope of government, or the use of military force in a foreign country. In fact, that’s to be expected and even encouraged because these are important issues. An FAA funding bill is not one of those important issues, and the disputes between the House and the Senate are of a nature that, in ordinary times, ought to be capable of some kind of resolution. The fact that this issue has remained in limbo since 2007 demonstrates how it’s apparently become impossible for our legislators to resolve even minor disputes, and it leads me to think that, in some fundamental way, the system is indeed broken.




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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Jib says:

    Yep, 2012 will be a referendum on all of this. Obama focused on health care. Then when the repubs got in, they focused on debt. But nobody is focused on jobs or housing.

    Politics, not just D.C., is living in a bubble. The extended political class, including people like us who follow politics, are when compared to the general population, better educated, wealthier and older. As a group we are going though a recession so this seems like biz as normal.

    But a large number of people in the country are living through a depression. U-6 unemployment at 18%, family wealth wiped out in the housing crash (where most family wealth is) and the stagnate stock market has not added anything (S&P in real terms where it was at 10 years ago). They dont pay much attention to politics but if the people in DC cant get this fixed in a hurry, they will start.

    Some one in the next 12 months will give a modern version of the cross of gold speech. And then things will start to move. Throw out past records, any thing that happened in previous post-WWII elections. This one will be different.

    Regardless of rather your a repub or dem, tea party or Obama supporter, if you pay attention to politics today, you are probably not going to like what happens. The grown ups are going to come in and take away our toys since we cant play nice with each other.

  2. jan says:


    Regardless of rather your a repub or dem, tea party or Obama supporter, if you pay attention to politics today, you are probably not going to like what happens. The grown ups are going to come in and take away our toys since we cant play nice with each other.

    The generalities of this statement are true.

    In the meantime, Peter Schiff, the guy who bet Art Laffer the housing market would crash, was spot on in his prediction and, Laffer, who would only bet him a penny, had to pay up two and a half years later. Here is Schiff’s recent analysis and predictions about the debt ceiling deal and how we will economically fare in the future:

    Propping up a phony economy

    His main suggestion, as to what to do with of all this debt, is to “Brace yourself for the impact…”

  3. Liberty60 says:

    Washington is broken? Both sides do it? Politicians acting like children?


    When you clear away all the detailed chaff, the issue is very simple.

    The GOP will fund the FAA, only on condition that union rights be weakened or eliminated.
    The Dems refused, and we are at an impasse.

    This isn’t some petty dispute, this is a hostage situation, except this time the Dems didn’t cave.

  4. jan says:


    This isn’t some petty dispute, this is a hostage situation, except this time the Dems didn’t cave.

    Most Democrats want a system where a majority of only employees voting on whether to form a union have to vote yes (disregard those who do not vote) forcing all employees to join that union. Whereas, most Republicans want a system where a majority of the total number of employees in a company have to vote to allow for the creation of a union (meaning those who do not vote are considered NO votes).

    Following the Democrats logic, if you had a company with 1,000 employees and three of them voted (2 in favor and one against), then all 1,000 employees would be forced into a union based on the votes of two people.

    Now is that fair?

    IMO, it isn’t. And, if there is an hostage taker in this dispute it certainly isn’t the party who wants the idea of union formation injected into a company to be actively voted on by all members of that company. :

  5. @Liberty60:

    This isn’t some petty dispute, this is a hostage situation, except this time the Dems didn’t cave.

    The Senate was given the opportunity to vote on an extension that had no language whatsoever about the union issue and they refused to act. The Senate also could have taken up its own legislation and referred the matter to a House-Senate Conference Committee. They haven’t done that. The current Senate is one of the most inactive in history, apparently because Harry Reid enjoys sitting on his hands and pontificating instead of actually working.

  6. ponce says:

    The Senate was given the opportunity to vote on an extension that had no language whatsoever about the union issue and they refused to act.

    Yes, but it cut subsidies for rural airports in Democratic states.

  7. Why should American taxpayers be subsidizing people’s airplane tickets?

  8. ponce says:

    Why should American taxpayers be subsidizing people’s airplane tickets?

    Um, the bill you think they should sign still subsidizes rural airports in Republican states.

  9. And the airports for which subsidies are ended are within 50-100 of a major commercial airport.

    Heck, let the Senate add the GOP airports to the bill then. Eliminate all the dang subsidies as far as I’m concerned.

  10. ponce says:

    Eliminate all the dang subsidies as far as I’m concerned.

    At this point in a debate with a libertarian, it’s customary to ask them to stop posting on the government invented, government funded internet.

  11. mantis says:

    Heck, let the Senate add the GOP airports to the bill then. Eliminate all the dang subsidies as far as I’m concerned.

    That leaves us in the same place, as Republicans will only allow their preferred pork.

  12. Console says:


    Well, the problem is that the logistics of organizing a company wide union and then voting isn’t easy. Definitely not easy for working class truck drivers with jobs to do. All of a sudden they’re a no vote simply because they don’t have the money and time to fly to some city to drop a secret ballot? Meanwhile a place like UPS which is under a different set of laws is allowed to organize from facility to facility which makes the logistic easier. The result? UPS truck drivers are unionized, FedEx ones aren’t.

    But that’s besides the point. You’ve pretty much articulated a rationale that would invalidate most democratic processes. From ballot initiatives to any other vote in a world that doesn’t have compulsory voting. And you did this all in an effort to form a logic for why it should be harder for one company to form a union. Congratulations, you’ve finished step one of becoming a political hack.

  13. Liberty60 says:


    Most Democrats want a system where a majority of only employees voting on whether to form a union have to vote yes (disregard those who do not vote)

    Correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t that how most elections work?

    If out of 1,000 eligible voters, 3 cast ballots, 2 for and 1 against a proposition, the proposition wins, even if it affects the entire population.

    In what way is it fair to assume the nonvoters wanted a result of “no”.
    Isn’t it as likely as them wanting a result of “yes”?

  14. jan says:


    Not when you are radically changing the working structure of a company. You need to have a more definitive vote, one where most if not all participants are present. Not one where people might not be present for the vote because of union pressure. It’s the same with card check trying to be pushed by the unions — another way of being able to put subtle pressure on employees. Unions have become more corrupt over the years, strong arming their members, taking ‘dues’ from those who don’t even want to be a part of the union.

  15. jan says:


    A lot of people don’t like unions. Even President Obama has problems with them, saying that it makes it more difficult to get things done, when unions are involved. Maybe that’s why he used non-union people to set up his own birthday party.