RAA: FAA reauthorization bill ‘still not a done deal’

 - April 26, 2011, 9:20 AM

RAA senior vice president for government affairs Faye Malarkey Black concedes she might have let some Washington cynicism and weariness over a budget battle that has been going on since 2007 color her judgment during last year’s RAA fall meeting, when she predicted that an FAA reauthorization bill would not pass this year. That the House of Representatives would prove her wrong “was a little bit surprising,” she told AIN just days after the House of Representatives passed the “FAA Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2011” (H.R. 658) by a 223-196 vote based largely along party lines, but nevertheless welcome.

“Now we’ve really revised our thinking on that quite a bit,” Black said. “It has passed the Senate and now it’s passed the House. We’re basically saying, ‘Wow, who knew that after 17, now 18 [temporary] extensions, that this year, as kind of unexpected as it may have been, would have been the year to get something.’”

Still, she cautioned that a bill will not necessarily reach President Obama’s desk for signature into law. “Frankly, I do think we will get a bill, but it’s not a done deal,” Black conceded. “There are still a tremendous number of differences between the House and Senate versions.” Meanwhile, the White House has already threatened to veto any measure that contains a contentious labor provision that critics say would make it more difficult for unions to organize the aviation sector.

With the passage of H.R. 658, both that version and the Senate version will have to go to a House and Senate conference committee to reconcile differences between the two bills. According to the veteran Capitol Hill staffer, the longer the compromise takes, the greater the chance new controversies will arise.

The Senate version, known as the “FAA Air Transportation and Modernization and Safety Improvement Act” (S. 223), would last for two years, while H.R. 658 covers four years.

Black said the Senate bill contains much higher funding levels for a number of FAA programs, including Essential Air Service (EAS), while the House bill directs a phase-out of the program in the lower 48 states after FY2013. The Senate version contains a general aviation fuel tax increase, to which all parties in the Senate have agreed, while the House version maintains the current fuel tax levels.

“Let’s say the bill comes out of conference with that GA fuel tax increase attached,” Black posited. “How do the House Republicans sign it when they’ve signed a pledge not to increase taxes? You could have some no votes being drawn out by what’s in the final conference report. It’s far from a done deal.”

Meanwhile, EAS remains a top issue for the RAA and one that will likely need resolution in conference. “We feel fairly confident that the House is going to enter into the negotiations in good faith,” she added. “I think they would like to see some changes to the program and they see this as an opportunity to do so.”

Black doesn’t believe that the House will hold firm and fast to eliminate the program because it is too important to too many members of Congress. “I think they know it is important to the nation and not just the small communities,” she added. “We are continuing the hard press on that issue and I think we are cautiously optimistic there.”

Like other aviation organizations, RAA is working hard to see that the FAA gets funded at the “appropriate” levels, Black continued, and the association especially supports a provision in the House version of FAA reauthorization that protects data from safety management system programs from disclosure though Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

“Anonymity is such a cornerstone of the program,” Black said, “and the idea that a FOIA request could get all of the information would really undercut the safety benefits of the program.”

Black said that if she were sitting on the House-Senate conference committee, she would probably try to push back the conference report until close to May 31, the expiration of the 18th short-term extension of FAA programs and policies. “That way, there’s not a lot of room for each chamber to come back and say, ‘Well, let’s make this change or that change’; it’s kind of an up or down vote, with the encouragement being an up vote,” she concluded. o