House, Senate Dispute Looms on FAA Funding

 - August 31, 2011, 8:45 AM

It took the furloughing of 4,000 “nonessential” FAA employees and the idling of 70,000 airport construction workers for the Senate to finally vote on the 21st extension of FAA programs and funding early last month.

However, unless a compromise is reached on differing House and Senate long-term FAA reauthorization packages by September 16, or unless a 22nd extension is passed by then, there could be a replay of the dispute between the two chambers that caused the latest brawl.

When Congress failed to agree on an extension of the FAA’s operating authority by midnight July 22, the agency immediately sent thousands of non-safety-critical employees packing and shuttered airport construction ranging from new control towers to the rehabilitation and modernization of air traffic facilities.

By August 3, with the House already having passed the extension, Senate Democrats accused Republicans of holding the nation hostage over the budget impasse. Later that day, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood implored lawmakers to return from vacations that many of them had already begun. And, at a White House Cabinet meeting later that day, President Obama called the standoff “another Washington-inflicted wound.”

Unionization Remains Sticking Point

To the public, it appeared that the battle was over cuts to the Essential Air Service program that subsidizes air service to smaller airports. In reality, it was over a provision in the House-passed FAA reauthorization that Senate Democrats consider to be anti-union.

“It’s clear the right wing of the GOP wants to undo worker protections and may again block progress on the FAA bill in September in order to get its way,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in announcing that the chamber had finally agreed on an extension on August 4. “Thankfully, for now, this deal allows the FAA to restart, maintains workers’ rights and ensures that rural airports can get the resources they need, with language that protects deserving small communities whose airports are the lifeblood of their economies.”

But storm clouds are on the horizon. After everyone returns from vacation, the House and Senate will still remain deeply divided on a long-term bill to fund the FAA fully. The chambers haven’t seen eye-to-eye on how many years the bill should authorize, how much it should cost and, more important, on the labor provision that would make it easier for air transportation workers to unionize.

“It’s vital that the House and Senate leaderships and respective committees, in the next several weeks, work to ensure the end of a four-and-a-half-year delay in passing a long-term FAA bill so there will be no need for a 22nd extension,” said Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“If the Senate refuses to negotiate on the few remaining issues, they can be assured that every tool at our disposal will be used to ensure a long-term bill is signed into law,” Mica declared.