Will Republican-led U.S. Congress be kind to GA?

 - May 8, 2008, 7:13 AM

With the Republicans retaking control of the Senate when the 108th Congress convenes early next month, some recognizable names will be moving back into the leadership positions they were forced to vacate when former GOP Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont became an independent and allied with the Democrats in the middle of last year.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) will again be chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, taking over the gavel from Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.). That may prove to be a mixed bag for business aviation.

Although McCain is knowledgeable about aviation issues, and recently spearheaded a move to reach agreement on National Parks tour overflights, he has long been an advocate of user fees for corporate aviation.

McCain’s committee oversees the Department of Transportation and the FAA, and writes legislation that sets the spending limits for these agencies. The current authorizing legislation, the Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century (AIR-21), expires at the end of fiscal year 2003 on September 30 next year.

Chairmanship of the aviation subcommittee of McCain’s full committee is expected to go to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), who will switch seats with Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.). That should have little or no effect on the aviation issues that come before the subcommittee, which, like many other congressional aviation panels, generally worked on a bipartisan basis. Both Hutchison and Rockefeller are long-time supporters of general aviation.

Likewise, except for McCain’s penchant for user fees for business aviation, both he and Hollings are generally friendly when it comes to GA matters. Hollings has been a long-time supporter of GA on such issues as Flight Service Stations and opposing GA user fees.

Another Senate committee that is important to aviation is that of appropriations, particularly its transportation subcommittee. That panel actually allots funding for the FAA and DOT.

The overall Appropriations Committee chairmanship reverts from Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) to Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), a pilot and member of AOPA. Meanwhile, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) will relinquish her post as chairman of the transportation appropriations subcommittee, but her replacement remains unnamed.

Before Jeffords’ party switch, the panel had been chaired by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). But scuttlebutt in the halls of Congress has him possibly opting for chairmanship of the Senate Banking Committee. That would leave the transportation appropriations post to another Republican senator.

Because there was no change in the GOP’s political control of the House of Representatives, those chairmanships should remain unchanged. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) will continue at the helm of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) keeps his position as chairman of the aviation subcommittee.

AOPA said that GA fared well in the midterm elections, with 90 percent of the candidates supported by its political action committee (PAC) elected to serve in the 108th Congress. In the House 93 percent of the AOPA-supported candidates were elected, while in the Senate 78 percent of its supported candidates won election.

“This is a victory for general aviation,” said AOPA president Phil Boyer. “Several key friends who are pilots, such as Sen. Jim Inhofe [R-Okla.], Rep. Robin Hayes [R-N.C.] and Rep. Leonard Boswell [D-Iowa] are returning to Congress. And several new pilot-members of Congress, including four AOPA members newly elected to the House of Representatives, are coming on board.”

The AOPA members coming to Washington for the first time next month include Republicans Steve Pearce of New Mexico, John Kline of Minnesota, Michael Burgess of Texas and Chris Chocola from Indiana. All were strongly supported by the AOPA PAC.

While the Republicans padded their majority in the House, the retaking of the Senate means that Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) will become Senate Majority Leader, taking over from Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.C.). Lott is a past winner of AOPA’s Hartranft Award for his leadership in securing passage of the AIR-21 legislation that “unlocked” the aviation trust fund.

AOPA acknowledged that one strong GA supporter who was backed by AOPA PAC was not returned to the Senate. That was Georgia Democrat Sen. Max Cleland, who lost to Republican congressman Saxby Chambliss.

“We lend support to incumbent candidates who are vocal friends of GA, and we look forward to establishing a relationship and working with newly elected Sen. Chambliss, as well as the other new members in both chambers,” said Boyer.