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.